Practicing life and death with the ashes – A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

GOSPEL: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you….

Growing up my family was committed to being in church every Sunday, and often another night of the week for youth or orchestra practice or another church event. 

But Ash Wednesday was one of those days that seemed to get lost in the shuffle of family life. The way it moved around because of Easter, it sometimes landed on the same night as sports or music practice, some years its was during reading week at University. 

Yet, on the years when we did make it, it felt like it came out of nowhere. 

Church has just been merrily humming along through Christmas and the new year. Stories of Jesus’ miracles and the memorable story of Jesus going up the mountain, being transformed into dazzling white. A story that I can remember occupying my imagination as a child. 

Then all of sudden, the brightness of that moment is gone and rather than a mountain top, Jesus is giving a dinner table lecture on pride and boastfulness. Jesus’ instruction to pray behind locked doors invoked the image of praying in the closet to my mind as a child. 

But then the year that I did my pastoral internship, my supervisor had me help him burn the palms from the palm Sunday the year before. And a strand of connection materialized, a circle from humanity’s act of welcoming and then crucifying Messiah was made. This Ash Wednesday confession both rooted us in our great sin of trying to be God in God’s place both before the day of ashes and in the time to come as we retold the story of Holy Week soon again. 

In my first years as a pastor, the weight of Ash Wednesday would eventually hit me like never before. Ash Wednesday in its pacing and words feels like a funeral liturgy. Funerals which can come at any time and out of nowhere, interrupting any season of life. 

A good friend and seminary classmate wound up serving neighbouring coigretaion, and so we shared Ash Wednesday worship. As we stood together at front of the church, while worshippers came forward to receive ashes, the blessing took on more weight. 

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” takes on all kinds of new meaning when you have stood over a casket being lowered into a grave, and while dirt made the sign of the cross while declaring “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.” Especially so when you are imposing ashes onto the foreheads of spouses and siblings and cousins and friends of those whom you have blessed into the earth. 

As we made the sign of the cross in ashes on those that we served, finally it came time for my friend’s eldest son to receive ashes, maybe 5 or 6 years old at the time. I remember my friend stumbling back as if hit by a wall. He tried to compose himself to reach forward with his ashy thumb to mark his son. But he was barely able to choke out the words, “Remember you are dust…”

It is a pleasure to bless those whom we love. But it is a terrible burden to make that same sign of the cross in ash, to receive that sign of the cross in ash from those that we love – a souse, a child, a parent, a friend or even any cherished sibling in Christ. 

I could not help but think of that Ash Wednesday moment this week when I saw the video of Ukrainian father weeping as he hugged his young daughter goodbye. It was an Ash Wednesday moment seen around the world. 

For you see, Ash Wednesday truly the acknowledgement of the realities of sin and death in our world. WE confess both the truth of our sinfulness and the truth of our mortality.

And we practice. 

Just like in Nighttime Prayer, when we entrust our selves into God’s care through the night, it is an echo of the same blessing of entrusting ourselves to God that is said at funerals, the same blessing repeated at grave sides just before “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” On Ash Wednesday we rehearse having ashes and dirt put on us in the sign of the cross.

But even if we do not make it to Ash Wednesday each year the Ashes – the signs and symbols of sin and death – are still all around us. The signs of humanity’s sin, and suffering, the signs of our morality and dying are all around us. 

What is the pandemic if not Ashes?

What were the convoy protests if not Ashes?

What is this war in Ukraine if not ashes?

And yet…

And yet even though the Ashes dominate the day, even though they seem to ever surround us… 

The ashes are not the real point of the day.

The Ashes are a symbol that blows away in the wind, that washes off without a problem, that disappears as easily as they appear. Their impermanence is the point.

The Ashes only ever reveal what is already and was always there – what is underneath the sign they mark.

The mark of the One who has claimed us from the beginning.

The sign of the One of will not leave us to our morality, who will not leave us to the ashes and dust.

The cross of the One who turns the Ashes into something new, who turns us into someones made new.

Just as the ashes are all around, so to is the sign of the one in whom we are made new. 

The Ashes remind us that we are finite beings on our way to death AND they also remind us that One whose Cross they are marked in is the God of Life. 

The One who is also all around, found among the ashes wherever they are.

The One is comes to us in Word, Holy Baths and Holy Meals. 

Who does not abandon us in the time to trial and tribulation, who holds pandemics, occupations and even war in God’s hands. 

The One whose cross marks our bodies forever a sign that while we practice for the time when we die… we also rehearse and practice the promise that we too, on the 3rd will be called forth from our graves, as the ashes fall away, into resurrection and new life. 

One thought on “Practicing life and death with the ashes – A Sermon for Ash Wednesday”

  1. Thank you for the most meaningful sermon I’ve ever heard on Ash Wednesday. At the age of 81 I believe that is an honest and heartfelt statement. One of my Lenten intentions is to say Thank You more often and I believe the Lord has directed me to this sermon to begin my adventure. I always enjoy your beautiful sermons. Grace, peace, and joy to you always.


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