Ash Wednesday Sermon, Year C, 2022
I will admit that coming to church today and hearing the message that we are but ashes and dust, and to dust we shall return is not exactly what I want to hear. We are reminded of death and our mortality each and every day in profound and frightening ways: this hideous and heart-breaking war the Russians are waging against the Ukrainian people, the Chinese genocide against the Uighers, the on-going ravages of illness and death wrought by COVID, the daily drum-beat of how we may be past the point of no-return in saving this fragile earth our island home from environmental apocalypse. Mortality and the Specter of death surround us. It’s inescapable.
And while I’m more than willing, to paraphrase our Collect, to lament the sins and acknowledge the wretchedness of Vladimir Putin, Chinese Communists, anti-vaxxers, and those who degrade the environment to acquire lucre, I’m in little mood to do the same for myself. I don’t want to deal with more death, most especially my own!
But, here we are. Embarking upon another season of Lent when we are invited to engage in some serious self-examination of who we really are, and how far away that reality is from the way God desires us to be. And the truth is, if we are to truly acknowledge the reality of our lives, we need to acknowledge those sinful and wretched behaviors, the less-desirable, bad bits and pieces of our lives, so that we can amend them. This is not to engage in some perverse theology of our being miserable worms and totally depraved creatures, wearing some torturous mental cilice that painfully cuts into our flesh to unfailingly remind us of our wretchedness every minute of the day.
It is rather to acknowledge that, as it states in our Absolution for today, God “desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” And it is to find hope in the promise.
C.S. Lewis once said, “Die before you die. There is no chance after.” In other words, die to those behaviors and beliefs that prevent you from fully living. That strangle the life from you and make you as good as dead. Stop being a creature in the television program, The Walking Dead. Because the truth is we can be breathing and have a beating heart, but be as dead as a doornail.
Ash Wednesday and Lent help remind us of this.
When today’s liturgy focuses on our mortality it doesn’t do so out of a morbid sense of doom, but as a reminder that tomorrow is not guaranteed . . . for anyone. It reminds us that life is fragile. Like C.S. Lewis, Ash Wednesday calls us to live life as fully as possible. Every moment of every day. And we do that best through love. Ash Wednesday calls us to love. But we can’t fully love if we are burdened by selfishness, by parsimoniousness, by enmity, by self-aggrandizement, by lusts and gluttony, by an estranged relationship with God. These are all barriers to love. They are wicked and wretched things. They are not of love. They keep us from living as God would have us live.
The self-examination and disciplines of Lent are vehicles to acknowledge how these behaviors prevent us from fully living. And then to make amendments of life, so we can fully live; dying to them before we actually die.
Conversely, and maybe counter-intuitively, Ash Wednesday also reminds us of our immortality.
I shared this story with the brothers of St. Andrew’s when they prepared our ashes a few weeks ago.
My first Ash Wednesday as a rector was in 2002, at the parish of St. John the Baptist in New Hampshire. I decided I would prepare my own ashes from the dried-up palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. I needed a container to burn the palms in and decided that a sturdy cooking pot from the parish kitchen was perfect. Not wanting to mar the pot and risk the ire of the women’s guild, I lined it with heavy gauge aluminum foil. Enthusiastically I burned my palms. It was a lovely fire that burned intensely at first and then died down as the palms turned to ash. This was on the day before Ash Wednesday.
Well, unbeknownst to me, aluminum foil flakes under high heat. As I sifted the ash to filter out any embers, I was shocked to see sparkly, starry, silver glitter in those ashes.
As I said, it was the day before Ash Wednesday, and I was in rural New Hampshire. I had no choice but to use the ashes I had. So, that year the good folks of St. John’s had ashes with star-like glitter imposed on their foreheads. Honestly, instead of hearing the hymn, Forty Days and Forty Nights that Ash Wednesday I developed an ear worm and could only hear that late great New York ingénue Barbara Cooke singing “Glitter and Be Gay.” It was a unique moment!
Scientists tell us that stars that go supernova are responsible for creating many of the elements of the periodic table, including those that make up the human body. These elements are called stardust and they have been falling to the earth’s atmosphere for billions of years. They are a part of the earth and the cycle of life, not only here on earth but in the entire cosmos. We ingest all these elements when we eat plants and animals which are part of this great cycle of life. These elements comprise nearly 100% of who we are. Ergo, we are made of stardust. Which, when you think about it, makes us immortal. When we die, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we remain part of the ongoing cycle of the life of stardust, continuing to feed new life, eternally a part of the immortality of life.
In hindsight, those glittery, aluminum foil flaked ashes twenty years ago, were a lovely reminder of our being stardust. For us today they are a reminder that we are called by Ash Wednesday to fully glitter and shine with the fullness and joy of the life God desires us to have. We do that when we amend our lives and get rid of the sinful and wretched stuff.
Knowing this propels us to love. To engage, appreciate, honor and love all life of which we are inextricably connected to for eternity. To love is to glitter and be gay in a lovely and holy way. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Now go, live your live fully, as God desires you to do.