Sermon for Ash Wednesday – February 26, 2020
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Ps. 103:8-14; 2 Cor. 5:20b—6:10; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” How is it that we can hear these words as Good News? What is it that prompts us to come to church on this first day of Lent and be marked with ashes as a sign of our penitence? Why do we remind ourselves on this day, as it says in the Burial Office that, “In the midst of life we are in death?”
Usually, when we come forward to the altar, it is to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, that wondrous gift by which we know life, forgiveness and salvation—a moment in which we experience the presence of God and receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. But on this day, before we make our communion, we receive a sobering reminder of our mortality. From the vantage point of one who bestows the ashes, let me assure you that it is especially difficult to trace the dusty cross on the foreheads of both infants and seniors, and especially those struggling with serious health problems. Sometimes I feel bowed down under the weight of an inevitable, but uncomfortable prophecy.
Why then do we continue this ancient practice of “branding” the believer’s forehead with an ashen cross and issuing that unwelcome reminder, “Remember that you are dust . . . .”? How can this be understood as a pastoral act, one that is grounded in the Good News of God in Christ? How can we see this action as loving, healing and transformative?
Of course, the cross is the key. It is a symbol of death—but for those who believe, it is also a symbol of life. For me, there is a profound difference between leaving a smudge on someone’s forehead and tracing a cross there. A smudge of ash and the words about our journey towards death could easily be understood as a counsel of despair.
But the sign of the cross and the very same words connect us not only with Jesus and his saving death, but also with our own baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. Because at our baptism another cross was traced on our brow with holy oil accompanied by the words, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” As Christians, we are not nameless, rootless persons. In baptism we have been both named and claimed by the God of our Lord Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Each year, as we begin our Lenten journey, we are marked with the ashen cross of Christ and forced to re-encounter our own willful, sinful selves that journey toward death. But on this day we are invited to turn away from sin and reorient our lives to Christ. Ultimately it is our mortality that calls us to self-surrender. It is our mortality that calls us to turn to God with renewed hearts and to trust God absolutely with our life in Christ.
But each year we are also reminded (once again in the words of the Burial Office) that, “If we have life, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.” The cross of ashes is a sign that both death and life are encompassed by Christ’s arms. It is as if love waits in the ashes for our hearts to catch fire and be reborn. And that, my friends, is very “Good News”!
- The Rev. Dr. Kenneth J. Dorsch