A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
March 6, 2019
Lord, lead us ever deeper into the mystery of thy life, and our own, that we may be interpreters of that life, through Christ our Lord.
Why are we here tonight? What is Ash Wednesday all about? The heart of the matter pretty much comes down to this: What is the essential message that needs to be spoken this evening, how should it be presented - and this is where you, the listener, come in - how should the message be heard? Remember, Lent is a penitential season.
So being a semi-up-to-date Episcopal priest living in the digital world, I took to the internet to see what other clergy were saying, or at least, what they were planning to say about Ash Wednesday. The result was interesting: actually, more useful and much better than I expected.
Not surprisingly, most clergy began descriptively outlining what lies ahead of us as we travel through the Church year. Lent in fact was consistently portrayed as a sacred journey that we take with God for the 40 days before Easter. The number 40 isn’t arbitrary. It clearly states in the Bible that Jesus goes out into the wilderness for 40 days, even though that’s not technically correct – it’s really a 40 to 46-day range-of-days. But either way, it is there in the wilderness that Jesus wrestles with his faith and doubt. The Gospels suggest that Jesus is cajoled and “tempted by Satan,” and must undergo the rigors of theological testing and examination. In fact evil, which becomes personified as “the Devil” (D-E-V-I-L) taunts Jesus in sly and devious ways. Yet that narrative will be told more fully in the days ahead as the lectionary moves us forward.
In the service this evening, however – no surprise here - we are dealing exclusively with Ash Wednesday; and the theme quite clearly is that of the stark, sobering reality of death. That is the essence of tonight’s uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. And it follows both liturgically and logically that Ash Wednesday should speak directly to this undeniable finitude, before we commence any Lenten disciplines.
Well then, what happens in the service itself? Actually, a number of things transpire.
First. We receive ashes on our foreheads and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This clearly lets us know that we have a day set apart when we repent of all the things we’re not supposed to do.
Second. We confess our sins, and we say that over the course of the next 40 days we are going to try to do better. We are going to turn ourselves around, in order to set a new course, and a better direction for our lives.
Third. Now lurking around the edges observing this presumed piety, religious skeptics love to point out that attendance at church is always smaller on Ash Wednesday than at services during Holy Week and Easter Sunday. True enough. But that’s Okay; because no one here is obsessively keeping score about attendance. That’s not the point of our worship. We’re here instead to talk about death and sin, and while it makes sense in having our lectionary focus on these themes biblically; death and sin aren’t easy topics to assimilate. In fact, it requires quite a bit of courage just to be present in the pews listening to what is being asked, prayed, petitioned, and ultimately proclaimed about death and dying. Yet what better place to be than in church reflecting on the purposes of our lives, and focusing on the eventual destination of our earthly existence. This is precisely the place where Christians need to be; here in church, at this time, in this space, on this Ash Wednesday.
And to this rather strange mix of both worship and liturgical-theater; we introduce some burnt offerings; which is to say, we prepare for the service by burning the palms from last Palm Sunday, grinding them up, and then taking the ashes and putting them on our foreheads in the sign of a cross. Then we walk around in a daze, telegraphing that we’re not entirely sure what’s going on. We appear fearful that others will see we have dirt on our faces because of our participation in this quaint and peculiar ritual. Dirty faces, smudgy foreheads, and deferential postures, altogether makes Ash Wednesday an utterly foreign experience to outsiders looking on. Just maybe we need to acknowledge that we participate in Ash Wednesday only out of obligation; and admit it’s a troubling worship service we don’t look forward to at all.
I get all that. When our foreheads are marked with a cross of ashes and the priest intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” it feels like a morbid ritual. It even seems as though we are all being marked for something macabre or sinister - death.
Yet the truth is I am an Ash Wednesday traditionalist, reminding you as priest that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On this day, particularly, we should resist the prevalent cultural pressures that deny the reality of death, urging us not to even talk about it.
Just the opposite. We should confront death squarely and honestly, and we should recognize that we are not hopeless or totally adrift in the face of it.
In truth, the church has a very hopeful and positive doctrine to proclaim. We are taught when the cross of ashes is marked on our heads, it means symbolically that we are God’s own. With ashes as signs of hope, we affirm that we are marked not for death only, but for new-life in Jesus Christ.
Yes, it’s true. We are mortal, finite, limited, flawed, fallible, and sinful – in fact, we are all of the above - but we are not hopeless. We are not doomed. We are, in truth, claimed by something much larger than ourselves. Those ashes on our forehead are a sign that we are claimed by God, and if God lays claim to us, nothing can separate us from the love of God; nothing, not even our own mistakes or our wayward moral turpitude. Nothing will ever be powerful enough to destroy the goodness that God has given to each of us.
There is hope rising out of these ashes, new life of which a phoenix could only dream. There is a promise of resurrection that comes only from the one who has been resurrected, Jesus the Christ. Maybe there isn’t the rich pageantry of Easter Sunday; maybe there aren’t flowers, lilies or candy eggs and Easter bunnies. But in these ashes there is hope for even the darkest nights of our souls, and that is a sign of the joy that is to come.
After we receive our ashes, we are invited to be participants in the holy season of Lent. We are invited into a journey of new life. The closeness with God that this season can bring doesn’t necessarily come from giving something up, or even taking something on. It comes primarily from this: the willingness to be marked as Christ’s own forever and to find your hope in His story – the story of Jesus-the-Man who became the Christ-of-faith. The ashes are just a visible signal that you are ready to start a journey that can change everything. They are a sign of hope on our foreheads, a symbol of where we will put our hope during these next 40 days and 40 nights of lent.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
We ask all this in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.