Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015 || Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103
The twins are six and half months old. They’re sleeping pretty well, waking either zero or once during the night. They’re beginning to crawl and sit up by themselves. Their hair is really coming in. And they have the absolute softest skin imaginable. I could spend all day kissing their cheeks and foreheads and want to do it again all day tomorrow. So when I think of offering them the imposition of ashes, when I imagine scraping two coarse lines of grit on those smooth foreheads, I shudder. I recoil. How could I sully such perfect skin?
As this question hangs in the air, I think back to last week, when I was blessed to go up the street to Mystic Healthcare and offer prayers by the bedsides of two women who were actively dying. They had lived long, long lives. Both passed away over the weekend, one in her mid-nineties and one who was 105 years old. I prayed by their bedsides as they breathed the short, staccato breaths of those who are living their final days. I touched and kissed their foreheads during the prayers, and I found them to be spotted and wrinkled and dry, more like wax paper than skin. Surely, these were the foreheads made to receive the imposition of ashes.
And yet the ashes are made to adorn the newborn infant and the dying elder both the same. No matter how much or how little of this life we have left, the ashes are made for us to wear. This thought might make you shudder, like it does when I think about offering them to my babies. But if we take another look at the ashes, we might come to a new understanding.
You see, more often than not we associate ashes with death. I think we make this association for two reasons. First, when a fire dies out, the ashes remain. Second the rate of cremations in the United States has risen from three and a half percent in 1960 to over forty percent in 2010.* And this number will continue to rise. We are closing in on half of all funerals in this country involving the deceased person’s ashes.
So it’s only natural to associate ashes with death. Even the words I will pray in a few minutes before the imposition of ashes speak of them being a “sign of our mortality.” Then when I scrape the ashes on your foreheads, I will say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of this seems to be pointing to our deaths.
But I would suggest the ashes are not about our deaths at all, despite all this evidence to the contrary. The ashes are about our lives. The ashes remind us how transient this life is; how impermanent. The eighth century monk and historian known as the Venerable Bede compared this life to a sparrow fluttering into a brightly lit banqueting hall, flying the length of the room, and then disappearing into the night. The psalmist speaks the same truth in today’s psalm: “Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; When the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more.”
If our lives are so transient, so fragile and brief, then we have to wonder why God would bother with us at all? We scratch our heads in wonder at the 105 years of the woman at Mystic Healthcare, but even that is less than a breath when we zoom out the camera to geologic time. So why would God bother with us? Why would the psalmist say, “As a father cares for his children, so does the LORD care for those who fear him?” It all seems a bit daft in the grand scheme of things.
But remember, I said the ashes were about our lives, not about our deaths. While this life is transient, yes, and while we aren’t more than vapor on the wind (as the Bible so often reminds us), there is more to the story. Because death is not the end, just as birth was not the beginning. Have you ever looked at an infant and seen a hidden wisdom hovering just behind his wide-eyed wonder? Have you ever held the hand of a dying elder and realized that she was excited to see what comes next? Both of these instances speak to the “something else” or “something more” that we feel in our gut when we meet the beginning or the end of life. We call this “something more” eternity. We call this “something else” the promises of God made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If God made us for eternity, then we can in all faithfulness zoom out the camera again and see geologic time fade away.
This is the true life that God invites each of us to live: the expansive, abundant, eternal life, which fuels the fires of our souls. This is the life we have, but it is rarely the life we live. And so we return to the ashes and our new understanding. When I burn last year’s palms to make the ashes, the fire gives off light and heat. The process changes the material of the palms into the energy of the fire. What’s left over when the fire goes out is the ashes. The keyword here is “change.” Each of us is on fire for God. We are burning our whole lives long, shining God’s light into the dark recesses of this world. But like the burning bush in the Exodus story, we are not consumed. The fire does not annihilate. It purifies. As we live, all that will not burn for God filters away. All that keeps us from shining with the love and grace of God filters away. All that separates us from God, what we call “Sin,” filters away. And becomes ash. When we are done burning and God has gathered us home like those two blessed women at Mystic Healthcare, the ash remains behind. All that separates us from God remains behind.
We scrape the ashes on our foreheads each year to remember that we are still burning. God is still calling us to shine the light of God’s reign on the darkness of the world. Today the prophet Isaiah gives us a blueprint for how to shine: “Loose the bonds of injustice…share your bread with the hungry…bring the homeless poor into your house…cover the naked when you see them…let the oppressed go free.” When we burn for God doing these things, our ashes filter away, and we live the promise Isaiah offers next: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”