If you were unable to be with us in worship tonight, here is my meditaion.
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“From dust you were created and to dust you shall return.” These are the words you will hear when you come forward to receive the ashes later, if you wish. It is a strange practice, this marking ourselves once a year – one that identifies us as sinners to those who see us between the sanctuary and our beds tonight, but a sign that we ourselves we cannot see. It is a very visible mark that we came to church today and repented and worshipped. It is a sign that we are a people who have entered into the time of preparation called Lent.
Yet, our gospel reading seems to indicate that we should be doing just the opposite. Once, there were palm branches that were waved in a sanctuary on a Sunday and heard the congregation cry out “Hosannah, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Those palms were burned to create the ash we use tonight. They are mixed with oil and then placed in the sign of the cross on our foreheads. Yet we hear Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew cautioning against such public displays of piety. Perhaps we should be using only the oil? So often we think of the smudge we receive as a sign of our holiness, of what we are giving up, or how we are fasting during this holy season. Ash Wednesday is a night to begin to think about that – to begin to think about what we will read and hear and think about in the coming weeks – the death of Jesus Christ. For some, the ashes are a sign of the commitment they have made to give something up or take something on during these 40 days and 40 nights.
But that is not really what we come here tonight to do. We come here tonight to admit that we are human, and as humans we have sinned against God and one another. We come and confess those sins and remember that at the end of this Lenten journey is when the death of Christ redeemed us from them. So we are marked not as pious, but as sinners. We are marked as ones who have fallen short of the glory of God.
Also in the ashes in the reminder of our own mortality. The reminder that we were created from dust – God made Adam from the dust of the earth and Eve from him. And it is the dust to which we will all one day return. In the ashes that smudge our faces is the reminder that we are finite creatures, and all of us will one day return to God. Yet, as people of God, as Christians, we know that this is not an abysmal fate, but rather the hope we have in what is yet to come – the hope we celebrate in the Resurrection that we now anticipate.
Lent is a time for us to get serious. A time for us to think. A time to make amends and to keep a fast – not a meaningless fast that we brag about and talk about to all we meet, but a fast that deepens our faith. As we walk with Jesus closer and closer to Jerusalem, we hear the words from Isaiah calling us to a fast that God chooses – a fast that will loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, feed the hungry, and bring the poor into your house. We do not fast to better ourselves, but to answer the call of God. To better hear where God calls us to mend our ways and deepen our relationship with God. In Lent we prepare our hearts to receive the joy of the good news of Easter morning. We prepare by examining ourselves closely, and asking hard questions. We prepare by turning loose of those things which have a stranglehold over us, and by adopting new practices that free us to better serve God.
I invite you to go home tonight and before you wash your face look in the mirror. Look yourself in the eye. Ask God how you are being called to have a Holy Lent. Give thanks that we already know how this journey ends, and that in Jesus Christ you are forgiven. The ashes will be washed off with water, just as we are washed in our baptisms. We are indeed created from dust, and it is indeed to dust that we will return. In between, know that you are forgiven by the work of Jesus Christ. Amen.