Twenty-five years ago today, I trudged up the marble steps, past the stone lions, and into the cold church next door to my house. I think I was in fourth grade at the time. That day I got to miss the bus because that day was special. That day was Ash Wednesday.
I stepped into the nave of the church. The coughs and groans of the overworked heaters echoed off the vaulted ceiling. The church hovered in the stillness of pre-dawn, awaiting the riot of color that would dance down the chancel steps when the early morning sun reached the stained glass behind the altar. I looked around in the dim light. The nave was empty. No one had come to the early morning service.Continue reading “Planting a Seed”→
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.”
For many years, I became queasy at the thought of having ashes scraped across my forehead — not because they are a reminder of my own mortality, not because I dislike being called to repent, but because I couldn’t square the action with Jesus’ command in the Gospel for the day. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes to task those who do things merely for show rather than for dedicated spiritual discipline. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” he says. Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms. Don’t pray ostentatiously on street corners so others will see you. Don’t disfigure your face when you fast. Give alms, pray, and fast in secret, “and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Don’t disfigure your face. These words stuck in my mind while walking to the altar rail, while watching the priest’s trembling thumb touch the powder, while feeling the gritty scrape first vertical then horizontal on my forehead, like sooty sandpaper. Why are we disfiguring our faces when Jesus just told us not to?!
I was preparing a children’s sermon when I realized I had it all wrong. As far back as I can remember, I had not seen the ashes as anything other than a disfigurement, a liturgically pretentious sign that I was a pious person. Everything changed when I tried to explain Lent to a group of five-year-olds.
“Did you know that you have a cross on your forehead,” I asked, arching my eyebrows as high as they could go. They all looked back at me with those funny, squinched up faces that kids make when they are quizzical. Several shook their heads emphatically. “It’s true,” I said, “but the cross on your forehead is invisible.”
That got their attention. They began looking at each other’s foreheads. I continued, “When you were baptized, a priest took some oil and made a cross right here” — I demonstrated on myself — “and said, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.’
“That cross is still there, but you can’t really see it. It’s a reminder that you belong to God and that God loves you very much.” They nodded, open-mouthed. “Today is a special day because today we are going to use some special dust to make that cross appear on your foreheads again.”
On Ash Wednesday, we don’t disfigure our faces so others can see how pious we are. In fact, it’s just the opposite. By making visible again the cross that we received at Baptism, we acknowledge our impiety, our lack of repentance, our apathy to the suffering in the world. The renewed visiblity of our baptismal crosses indicts us for our indifference to our baptismal promises.
We look in the mirror and see a pair of lines, crude charcoal calligraphy. And we remember what it means to be a follower of Christ, to be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. We remember that we have only a limited time on this earth to make a difference in the lives of those we meet, to show forth the love and light of God to a world too familiar with darkness. Disfigurementhappens when we rub the ashes away and forget that there is still a cross written on our foreheads.
On Ash Wednesday we make that cross visible, if but for a brief time. This small, crudely drawn cross reminds us of another cross, the one that Jesus calls his followers to pick up when they decide to follow him. All too often, this cross also fades into invisibility, a wooden victim of our lethargy and misplaced priorities. During the season of Lent, we are given the opportunity to discern how to make that cross visible again.