The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
In a few moments we will bless the ashes that will be imposed on our foreheads. In that blessing we ask that God, “Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence.”
Ashes are a sign of our mortality based on the second Creation story in Genesis, where we hear that, “the Lord, God formed man from the dust of the ground.” (Gen. 2:7a) After Adam and Eve defy God’s command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are exiled from the Garden of Eden. God poignantly reminds the first humans of their newly found mortality, saying, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19)
Ashes as a sign of penitence also finds its origin in the scripture. Throughout the Hebrew Bible people sit in sackcloth and ashes to show their penitence, or remorse, for defying God’s ways of life. In the book of Jonah, we hear that God instructed the prophet to, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” (Jon. 1:2) Jonah walks throughout this great city telling its inhabitants to repent in forty days, or be overthrown. We learn that, “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes:” (Jon. 3:6) A sure sign of penitence and amendment of life.
We stand on the portal of another Lent: a season when we are called by the Church to reflect on our own mortality, not so much to be reminded of our inevitable death, but to underscore the precious value of our life. Likewise, we are called to be penitent for those sinful behaviors - those “things done and left undone” as the Confession states - so that we may fully embrace the gift of the life we have been given.
So, instead of these ashes and this day being framed in the context of gloom and death, they are really about life and the opportunity, “to make a right beginning of this season of renewal,” so that we may truly live.
The greatest existential threat facing humanity in our time is global warming and climate change. While the framers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer could not have imagined the dire environmental circumstances of our day, they certainly understood that how humanity treats “this fragile earth, our island home” is part and parcel of our sinful human behavior.
In the Litany of Penitence for Ash Wednesday, we will confess to, and repent of, “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,” and “for our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.”
How do we understand those prayer petitions in 2020, considering our continued spewing of toxins from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere, resulting in warmer temperatures, causing rapidly rising seas due to the melting polar caps, and increasingly violent, destructive weather. Or the choking of the seas and marine life by plastic waste, and the wild fluctuations of rainfall causing extremes of flooding or drought? How do we understand those prayer petitions today, and how do we repent of our own culpability in creating this existential threat?
Like Nineveh, we stand condemned for our sinful ways. Will we take this Lent as an opportunity to hear God’s voice calling us to repentance? Will we acknowledge our sinful ways; our waste and pollution of God’s creation, our exploitation of other people, our lack of concern for those who come after us? We are at a critical junction in this crisis of global warming where we must sit in sackcloth and ashes and take inventory of all our behaviors – large and small - that contribute to this environmental destruction.
Maybe we already are sitting in sackcloth and ashes, but are not aware of it.
Last month Australia experienced wildfires of a magnitude never experienced before. The fires burned millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes, and killed at least 30 people. More than a billion animals perished.
Severe drought, wrought by the changing climate patterns of global warming, caused the forests and grasslands to become tinder boxes. Lightening did the rest.
In a NYT op-ed piece titled, “Has Australia Reached A Climate Tipping Point,” Lisa Pryor writes this: “Only a few months ago, I joked with friends who had just returned from life in the northern hemisphere that, with the state of the world at that moment, our distance from the rest of the world felt more like comfort than tyranny. Australia felt like a prosperous and benign island.
But as they say on the internet, life comes at you fast. We Australians found ourselves at the center of global events when our land erupted in flames . . . Many of us had feared that our good luck would someday come to an end, but we never imagined that the end would be so sudden, so cinematic, so biblical. We have become a portent of what the world can expect if it does not act on climate change . . . In my part of Australia, the fires are out, for now . . . [so] it would be easy to forget what the nation has gone through.”
[But the reality is] “the time has come for us to put away childish things and reckon with climate change, to do what we can to prevent a future in which extreme weather is more intense and more frequent. This time around, it was Australia that suffered, that served as a warning of our planet’s climate change future. Many other places will follow in the coming years.”
Those Australian wild fires are a poignant reminder of the mortality of not only humans, but of animal life . . . and even the life of the earth’s environment itself.
Lisa Pryor’s writing is a clarion call to penitence and an amendment of life away from behaviors that contribute to global warming and its resulting destruction . . . before it’s too late.
As I stated a moment ago: maybe we already are sitting in sackcloth and ashes, but are not aware of it.
One of the significant impacts of those wildfires is that enormous amounts of carbon gas loaded with ashes was released into the stratosphere. This of course exacerbates the very conditions that allowed the fires to begin in the first place.
But, it also resulted in something with a more profound meaning for we Christians on this Ash Wednesday. Scientists have tracked those ashes and they have circumnavigated the globe. They are in the jet streams that circulate over the entire creation. Which means those ashes have fallen down on us, they have been imposed on all of humanity. We can imagine them on our own heads. These ashes are the burned remains of the trees and grasses, the ashes of the billion animals that died, and the ashes of burnt human bodies.
Through those ashes we are called to hear the voice of God speaking – just as it did through Jonah - crying out against us and the sinful ways we are destroying Creation. Those ashes are a heartbreaking messenger of our wickedness. They are a thundering call for our penitence and an amendment of life, so that not only we, but all humanity, all those who come after us, and all Creation may live.
In those ashes of all that died, we are vividly reminded that we must work to promote life.
For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
 Lisa Pryor, “Has Australia Reached A Climate Tipping Point?,” The New York Times, February 24, 2020