Why Ash Wednesday?February 26, 2018 Pastor Sebastian
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Sermon: Why Ash Wednesday?
Grace and peace be unto you..
Benjamin Franklin in a letter in 1789 coined that popular phrase
"'In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
Well today we won’t be talking about the second item in that list,
mainly the first one.
Ash Wednesday is a day when we remember death,
that we are not immortal,
and we remember that we are dust and that to dust we shall return.
It is a little odd that this most solemn day falls this year on Valentine’s Day, a day characterized by romantic love, roses and chocolates. It is a bit of a stark juxtaposition to the atmosphere of abstinence and fasting that Ash Wednesday brings about, that’s for certain.
Be that as it may,
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent.
Lent was finalized as a season of the church year in the 4th century,
as a 40-day pre-Easter fast.
It was foremost a time to prepare people for their Baptism,
which generally at that time happened at the Easter Vigil,
the night before Easter.
During Lent, public sinners were excluded from communion,
and assigned penance.
They were then received back into communion on Maundy Thursday.
In the Medieval era, Lent became a period of fasting and penance for all Christians, not just public sinners.
The colour of Lent is purple:
which symbolizes the royalty of Jesus Christ,
who reigns not like a worldly king,
but reigns from a cross.
The colour of Ash Wednesday is historically black, since it is the colour of ashes to which we all return. However, in most churches, purple is used. The paraments on the altar and pulpit were made by Pastor Schmieder’s wife and are at least 80 years old. Black is also the colour of mourning, and as Ash Wednesday is a day of mourning for our sins, this is most fitting. I am wearing a black academic gown and foregoing the white alb which represents baptism, to focus on the dark and solemn nature of this day.
The chancel area is stripped down and simplified, less candles, less shiny stuff— it is a simple time for looking inward, not focusing on outward pretensions.
The season of Lent has 40 days, not including Sundays,
between Ash Wednesday and Easter.
40 was a Biblical number often tied in with particular devotion,
such as Noah’s 40 days in the ark,
Moses’ 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the law,
Elijah’s 40 day walk to the Mountain of God,
and also, Jesus’ 40 day temptation in the wilderness.
Lent is a pilgrimage, a common activity we do together,
joining others on the road,
as we follow Jesus in his ministry, teaching, healing,
all the way to his passion and death,
to the cross and then ultimately to the empty tomb.
Like pilgrims, we are strangers in a foreign land,
and so we identify with the strangers in our midst:
Those who don’t belong, those who are less fortunate than us,
those who are mourning, in pain and suffering.
In Lent we are called to metanoia,
to turn to the Lord, we are called to convert our ways,
and to conform ourselves more to God’s will.
What will you turn away from this Lent?
What will you turn towards?
Their are three traditional Lenten disciplines:
almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
Some people refrain from eating meat,
or restrict personal or entertainment experiences.
Some pay attention to their patterns of self-indulgence.
Making do with less is a good practice and helps us live more in solidarity with the poor and those in need.
In our wealthy country of Canada,
it is so sad to see so many people living in poverty.
Every night we have between 20-50 people attending our overnight emergency warming center, people who are homeless, or precariously housed. The need is very visible in this downtown community, just on our very doorsteps.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
are the most important words of the evening.
Why do we celebrate Ash Wednesday here at St. Matthews?
Frankly, not many Protestant churches do, and I think that’s too bad.
On a midweek evening, a cold, dark night,
we have the opportunity to ponder our mortality, our finitude,
and we get a chance to examine the nature of suffering and death,
but also to look forward in hope and faith.
All too often in our church year, we concentrate on glory and victory,
and that is right so, because salvation is ours,
yet we also need time for introspection, and quiet thought.
Ash Wednesday is an abrupt, unexpected interruption into our everyday lives,
an intrusion into our everyday pleasure of living (at least here in the West).
Those evening services, like Christmas Eve, Maundy Thursday,
and Ash Wednesday, are wonderful rich times to sit down,
breathe out a big sigh, and be still with God,
and contemplate what life is all about.
Personally, I like Ash Wednesday.
It’s one of the most meaningful services of the whole year.
As a pastor called to accompany you from birth until death,
this is one of the few times where we can all together think about our mortality.
A few years ago at an Ash Wednesday service,
I traced the ashen cross on the forehead of my young daughter
That was incredibly poignant, and made me cry a bit.
Here was a young girl, barely been on the planet for a few years,
and here I was saying to her; look:
tomorrow you could be dead, tomorrow you could be returning to dust.
You know, we cannot escape our mortal death.
Ash Wednesday is arguably the most solemn day of the Christian Calendar, and corresponds to the Jewish Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement.
It is a day to confess our sins,
to acknowledge our failures,
to acknowledge how we are alienated from our friends, co-workers, neighbours and family.
It is about personal sin, but also sin of community,
for as a community, neighborhood, town, church, country, we also sin.
It is a day to acknowledge for example the systemic sexism and racism and transphobia that exists in our society.
Also interesting is the confession today.
Normally, on a given Sunday, immediately following our confession,
I pronounce God’s forgiveness.
Today, no forgiveness is proclaimed!
You don’t receive a proclamation of forgiveness tonight!
We have to wait in hope and anticipation for the forgiveness that will be proclaimed in 40 days on Maundy Thursday.
Of course, on the Lenten Sunday services, Forgiveness will be proclaimed,
but in a way, those of you who have come this evening,
you are invited to hold on to your confession in tension and acknowledge the fact that it is not a given that God is merciful, gracious.
Forgiveness and salvation is a gift we should not take for granted.
It is a precious, costly gift.
The Ashes made from burned Palm Sunday Palms are traced on foreheads,
and these ashes demonstrate a deep symbolism:
the dirty mark of ashes in the shape of a cross says more than words could ever say:
you are marked with the sign of the cross forever,
you are God’s child forever, while you are alive,
and after you die as well.
The ashes remind us of three things:
Firstly: that we are mortal;
in Genesis Chapter 3, God announces to Adam after the Fall that:
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. (v19)
Adam in Hebrew is Adamah: which means soil,
just like how the word human is derived from the word humus, or earth.
We come from earth, and soon enough, we will return to the earth.
The next time I could be mentioning dust and ashes to you,
could be at your funeral service.
At the final committal, when the casket is lowered into the ground,
the pastor utters those profound words:
earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes
Ashes also remind us that we are sinners.
Receiving ashes means we acknowledge our failings, our failures,
in the Israelite tradition of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.
We hear it in so many Old Testament stories.
We turn away from beauty, cleanliness and joy,
and mourn our weakness, our insecurities,
the ashes remind us that despite our best intentions,
ultimately we are not perfect.
Our proudest achievements will never fully measure up.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
However, as Christians, that is not the end.
Because the ashen cross traced on our forehead speaks of hope.
It reminds us of the cross that was traced on our forehead at our baptism.
The cross on our forehead reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,
neither height nor depth, nor angels nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor death nor life.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love… we are God’s children,
and the cross on our foreheads defiantly proclaims that truth.
The ashen cross points to resurrection and eternal life.
We still keep the Easter hope in our hearts, and embrace eternity.
We know who has won the battle.
We know we are not lost.
Our first reading today from the prophet Joel really encapsulates what today is all about.
Sound the trumpet, the prophet exclaims
and by trumpet, he means the shofar,
the ram’s horn which is blown as sign of immediate danger,
to gather people for religious services
and…to gather the elect on the last day.
At the sound of the ram’s horn, which threatens and terrifies,
people gather to express their corporate penitence,
and to confess where they have gone wrong,
both as individuals and as society.
Joel reminds us that the exterior fast should be accompanied with a change of heart.
And so thus on this Ash Wednesday, let us listen
as the prophet Joel cries out to us:
“Return to the Lord with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
God is a loving God and though he knows our imperfections,
God still has mercy on us.
Full of joy at this realization, we can confront our mortality,
and take this evening as an annual opportunity to ponder
what it means that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
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