Isaiah 58. 1-12 & Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18 Ash Wednesday.
Do you remember the dustmen's strike of the late 1970s? I do – simply because of one very memorable event – which happened soon after we had moved into a new house. My Dad decided to deal with the overflowing rubbish bin by the simple expedient of having a bonfire in the garden. However, he wasn't quite as careful as he might have been – and accidentally consigned an aerosol can to the flames. Sure enough, the can exploded – sending a missile over the fence at the bottom of our garden, to land in the open kitchen door of a new neighbour.
Our neighbour, who turned out to be the headmaster of our local school, came screaming out of the house. "What on earth to you think you are doing?!" My Dad was, of course, very apologetic – but thought that this rather bossy man was over-reacting a bit. It was only an accident after all. He was then rather puzzled by the neighbour's next question: "What would have happened if a net had been there?". "Well," replied my puzzled father, "I suppose a net would have caught it!". What Dad didn't realise, was that 'Annette' was the headmaster's daughter!
Ashes were something we got used to many years ago. Everyone had bonfires, in the time before smoke-control zones. I guess most of us have had the experience of raking ashes out of the grate, in the days before central heating. Ashes are just rubbish, aren't they? The product of burning something away. Just carbon. Waste, after the heat and light are gone.
So why, tonight, are we going to put this rubbish, this ash, on our heads? I want to suggest three reasons why we maintain this tradition - though I am sure there are more.
First of all these ashes are a reminder of who we are. The Bible tells us that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. As I'm sure you know our bodies are made up of about 50% water, and about 22% carbon (which is all that ashes are in the main). Mixed in with that are a couple of pounds of nitrogen (such as we find in good compost) and a couple of pounds of calcium (like the chalk hills of the Downs). On top of that there are about 30 or 40 other trace elements. But if I were to have all those elements here, and threw them all into a bucket, would I be able to make a human being? No, of course not.
The mythological imagery of Genesis tells us that the first human was formed out of the dust of the earth by God and then God breathed life into that dust. That is a powerful image. God is the source of our life – and the ashes we will use later on remind us of our utter dependence on him. Without the breath or Spirit of God moving in us, we are just ashes – dust: lifeless - worthless.
Secondly ashes are also a sign of repentance. As well as being a time of preparation for Good Friday and Easter, Lent is a time of mourning for our sins. It is a time when we are called to repent, turn away from our sin – which why, throughout Lent, we do not sing the Gloria, but focus instead on the Kyrie. "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy". For many of Lent will involve giving up something which we enjoy, as a personal discipline, and as a sign of our repentance.
Repentance is of course a key biblical theme. Time and time again the Old Testament prophets called people to turn away from their way of doing things, and to turn towards God's way. Sometimes, as we heard from Isaiah just now, that even meant repenting about the way that repenting was done! Fasting - or the giving up of food - was (and still is) an excellent discipline. It is designed to train us in the task of looking to God for spiritual and physical sustenance. It was an outward sign of a contrite heart - a heart that longed to be obedient to God.
But in Isaiah's day, fasting had become sort of fashionable, and as a result, hollow. Isaiah, speaking for God, says "Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes. Do you call this a fast - a day acceptable to God?"
Then, as we heard in the reading, Isaiah goes on to outline what true fasting, true repentance will look like. It won't be a mechanistic tradition of wearing certain clothes, and going without certain foods, or, in our case, for example, just performing again the ancient traditions of Ash Wednesday. It won't be the public wailing and showy-ness that Jesus condemmed in our Gospel reading. Instead, true repentance will be the complete changing of our minds to be more like the mind of God. This, of course, means being like the God whose heart is for the poor, and the hungry, and the homeless, and the weak. It means not being religious - but being practical, outward looking, loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. It means moving from a state of receiving God's love for us as individuals, into expressing that love for other people, through our actions, through our prayers, through our giving.
This year various Bishops have suggested that we should give up using carbon for Lent – especially the carbon used by our ubiquitous mp3 players and mobile phones. That is a really tangible way of loving our neighbour – cutting down on our personal use of planet-destroying carbon emissions – that will ultimately flood, and starve, some of our poorest neighbours around the world. So let's turn off some lights. If you have any clusters of lights, like a small chandeliers, for example – why not remove one of the bulbs for lent – as both a real contribution to climate change, and a symbolic statement of our commitment to live with less? Perhaps you might leave the car at home? As we are marked with the carbon of Ash, in a short while, perhaps we might like to make a commitment to reduce our own carbon use this Lent...and then, hopefully, throughout the rest of the year.
But there is one final point I want to make. The people in Biblical stories put the ashes on top of their heads - so why do we put them in the sign of the cross on our foreheads? It's not just because we ministers are of those who have just had their hair done! We make the sign of the cross because it is a reminder of how we are marked for Christ. It is in one sense a reminder of our baptism, when we were signed with the sign of the cross. And the cross of ashes also reminds of the mark of the Lamb as it is described in the Book of Revelation. Revelation tells of an angel marking the faithful before the tribulation. These faithful would then be protected. The mark of the cross is a mark of ownership. These ashes tonight remind us that we are Christ's, we belong to him; and that he died so that we might live.
These may be just a few ashes, but they mean a lot. First, they are a symbol of our need for God, for His breath of life. We are nothing but dust and ashes apart from Him.
Secondly, they are also a symbol of our repentance and mourning. They are a way of showing on the outside what is happening on the inside. Our trust in our own powers and abilities has tarnished the image of Christ in us. We have failed to live as he commands us to live. We've allowed ourselves to be seduced by the wealth and comfort of the world, while our neighbours are starving. The ashes are a sign of our deliberate repentance, our turning away - from our way of being, to God's.
Finally, in the midst of our repentance, these ashes, marked onto our forehead, are a sign that we are forgiven and marked as Christ's own. The very burning away of our sin by the fire of God's love makes us God's own. And as his own we are stamped and certified as children of God through the cross.
So as we come today to have the sign of the cross placed on our foreheads, let us
remind ourselves of our need of God, the source of our life, without whose life we are just ashes and dust
commit ourselves anew to living for him
remind ourselves that we are forgiven, and marked as Christ's brothers and sisters; children of our heavenly father.