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….
*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video
The ashy cross smeared onto a forehead on Ash Wednesday still holds a place of symbolic meaning in our world. You may have already seen a few folks out and about today bearing their ashes still on their foreheads. You might see some TV personalities who will wear their ashes on their news programs or late night variety shows. Today is that day when Christians can be seen out in the world with that black smudge on their faces, a visible sign that they have been to church in the middle of the week as Lent begins.
Just a few days ago we were up on the mountain of Transfiguration, followed by the mountain that is our Annual Meeting. Places and moments to look around and survey the world around us, to see the paths that we have travelled and hopefully see the route of the journey ahead.
But as Jesus and the disciples and us come down from that mountain top moment, we enter back into the fray of the valley and we soon encounter the symbol of the Ashes.
The Ashes that are imposed on our foreheads and their meaning transcend time and space. Even without knowing much about Ash Wednesday or Church or Christianity, the image of an ash marked face seems to say something profound, something important. Something about impermanence and mortality, something about our limits and our finite nature, something about just how we live lives that constantly run parallel to death.
Ash Wednesday not only reminds us of our mortality, but reminds us that death takes many shapes in our lives. From the small deaths of sin, conflict, division, suffering and strife to the way death is imposed our on emotions, our bodies and very beings.
In this way, there is a discomfort that comes with Ash Wednesday. We work so hard to avoid thinking about and considering our own mortality. We strive to sanitize death, to make it clinical and distant and remote, very unlike the meshy smudge of ashes that will be stamped onto our foreheads tonight. We want to keep death far from our minds and experience for as long as we can.
For many of the funerals that I did early on as a pastor, funeral directors would come prepared for the committals at the grave. They would often bring vials of sand for the moment when I would commend the deceased to the ground saying, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” As I said the portion of the prayer of committal, I would mark the casket with the cross with the sand. The little metal vial would make it easy to produce a cross in sand as it poured evenly onto the caskets. It was the correct liturgical action, yet it seemed careful and contained. The symbol was muted by the neatness.
In more recent years as graveside committals have become more rare, funeral directors have mostly stopped bringing the vials of sand. So I have been required to go back to the traditional means for marking caskets with the symbol of the cross – I have been using dirt. Dirt from the grave itself, usually piled nearby under a green turf carpet attempting to hide the fact that this grave is a hole in the ground.
The symbol changes when you go from holding a carefully filled vial of sand to grabbing a handful of dirt and marking a clumpy cross on a casket. The sand usually blended into the finished wood the casket, while the dirt feel like dumping a handful of soil onto a carefully set dinning room table. The dirt doesn’t feel like it belongs. And yet as the words are said, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” it becomes a proclamation of defiance. Defiance against our attempts to contain death, to keep ourselves detached and removed from the messiness of death. Caskets and graves are not little condos in the ground, but in that moment we are returning a person, a loved one to the impermanent and mortal place from where we were created.
Dropping those clumps of dirt on caskets and marking foreheads with wispy palm ashes are moments that go hand in hand. Symbols that say something more than words about them can, they are the very thing from where we come from and to where we return. As God took the dirt and formed the Adam – the dirt creature in Hebrew – God brought human beings into existence. Our bodies are destined to return to the same dirt and mud, the same dust and ash. And as we make that proclamation at Funerals and on Ash Wednesday, the dirt and the ashes bring us close where we came from and to where we return.
And yet, the ashes aren’t just reminders of our mortality, they aren’t just the embodiment of our fragility and finitude.
The ashes remind us that the God who first created life out of the mud and earth, dust and ash has now taken on our flesh, our dusty finite flesh. And in that earthy flesh destined to die, God will do again what God did in the beginning. From the ashy cross and the dusty grave, God will breath life in to these earthy bodies of ours. Even from the ash that we bear tonight, even from the clumps of dirt that will be place on our graves, God will create new and resurrected life.
And so on this first step into the season of Lent, on this night of Ashes, we also are reminded of God’s promises made to the Adam, made again in the waters of Baptism, reinforced tonight and kept at the end – Remember that you are dust and even in the dust there is life.