Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday

 Readings: Joel 2: 1- 2, 12-17 & John 8: 1 – 11.

Do you remember the dustmen's strike of the late 1970s? I do – 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 via a bonfire in the garden. However, he 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 part of all our lives, not so long ago.  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. Are bodies are about 50% water, and 22% carbon – which is what ash also is.  The beautiful 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".  Traditional Christians also say that we have to give up using the word ‘Alleluia’ in Lent too – so that it has all the more power and meaning on Easter Sunday.  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 Isaiah said, that even meant repenting about the way that repenting was done! In Isaiah's day, fasting had become sort of fashionable, and as a result, hollow.  Isaiah, speaking for God, says "Is this 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?"

Isaiah goes on to outline what true fasting, true repentance will look like. True repentance means becoming like the God whose heart is for the poor, and the hungry, and the homeless, and the weak, and the stranger. It means being practical, outward looking, loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. It means expressing God’s love for other people, through our actions, through our prayers, through our giving.  It means, as Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, going from here and sinning no more.

Thirdly, and finally…people in the Bible put the ashes on top of their heads - so why do we put them in the sign of the cross on our foreheads?  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 – kept safe from the terrible Day of the Lord that the prophet Joel warned us about – “the day is close at hand.  A day of darkness and gloom.  A day of clouds and blackness.”  A day when the forces of evil that stalk our world will gain the power to ruin lives, full the pockets of the rich, bring war and famine and pestilence.  A day, I think you’ll find, that is not unlike the awful things happening in our world right now! 

These ashes tonight remind us that whatever comes, we are belong to Christ; he has marked us with the ever-lasting sign of Love, the mark of the cross.  We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.  We need have no fear.

These may be just a few ashes, but they mean a lot. Let me just summarise:

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. 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 are a sign that however often we have failed to live God’s way, and whatever evil befalls the world, we are marked as Christ's own, and we belong to him.  We are stamped and certified as children of God through the cross of ash.  Amen.

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