(Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail) Hide caption
Natalie Lucas receives an ash cross on her forehead during Mass on Ash Wednesday at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto.

Preached at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, AB
22 February, 2012

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday is a service much beloved of Christians despite, or perhaps because of, its strangeness. And it is a strange occasion, isn’t it? It’s a night when we hear things that we seldom hear from the culture around us.

In an age when shame and embarrassment seem out of fashion, and prominent people seem to brazen their way through the most heinous misdeeds, we hear the call to repent. We hear one of the most urgent and most frightening voices of the Old Testament, the prophet Joel telling us to run, not walk to church and beg God to 1turn aside his anger at human sinfulness.

In an age when personal fulfilment is linked to consumption and gratification, we stand at the beginning of Lent, and hear the call to fast. We are asked to revisit the ancient Christian disciplines of abstinence and self denial. If only in a symbolic way, for forty days, we are asked to follow our Lord into the wilderness. We are asked to turn down the volumes of our egos and bodies so that we can hear, however faintly, the voice of the Spirit.

In an age when we yearn for youthfulness and longevity, and vigorously deny the reality of death, we feel the cold dry ashes on our foreheads, and are called on to “remeber that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.

Repentance. Self denial. Mortality. These are the three voices of Ash Wednesday, the voices that are waiting to guide us through our Lenten pilgrimage. They are difficult voices, to be sure, and there are many times when we would rather not listen to them. But even when we are not in the mood to listen, I think we can agree that we are grateful for the honesty of these voices. For all its strangeness, there is a truthfulness about Ash Wednesday. That honesty is the reason, I think, that the culture avoids Lent like the plague. Christmas and Easter can be co-copted, encrusted in layers of sentimental goo and conscripted to serve profit and self-gratification, but not this day and season.

The culture doesn’t know what to do with Ash Wednesday and Lent. It has no purchase on these ideas, can find no way in to turn and exploit them, and so leaves them to the faithful.

So what do we, the faithful, do with Ash Wedneday? How can we profit from this strange and austere gift? Perhaps by spending some time with these three voices of repentance, self denial, and mortality, and thinking about how they remind us of our complete dependancy on God, we can begin to answer that question.

If we start with repentance, we should start by agreeing that it is a challenging word for us. It’s challenging because it strikes at the heart of our sense of self esteem, the psychological coin of the realm of our culture. Really, who wants to be told, as the Psalmist tells us, that “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps 51.5)? Assuming that we can get over that pyschological hurdle, we then wonder, how do we do repentance? Is it an emotion that we should do for the things that we feel really bad about? Is it an action that we should perform to make amends for our misdeeds? How badly should we feel? How heroically should we make ammends? How do we know that our repentance is good enough for God?

When we get stuck in these questions, we need to remind ourselves that repentance is linked to Jesus. In Mark’s gospel, which we’ve been following through Epiphany, the first words Jesus speaks are these: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” These are the same words, and the same gospel passage, that you will hear this Sunday, the first of Lent. These words are central to any understanding of the call to follow Jesus. If sin is nothing more than the human tendency to get in trouble and make a mess of things when we rely on ourselves, then repentance is about turning to Jesus, listening to him, and following him. If it helps, say the verse to yourself this way: the kingdom of God has come near; turn around, and believe in the good news. The beginning of repentance is in our turning from our own priorities, fixing our gaze on Jesus and following him.

The second voice of Ash Wednesday and Lent is the voice of self denial. If we listen to what Jesus says in today’s gospel, it seems comically opposed to the liturgical act we shall do in a few moments, smearing ashes on our foreheads in a public display of piety. Doesn’t Jesus warn us to “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Mk 6:1)? Isn’t the charge of hypocrisy and false morality a stick that religion is still regularly beaten with today? We certainly don’t want to be thought of as hypocrites and pious frauds, do we? But then how do we square these words of Jesus with his great commission to be visible in the world as evangelists and messengers of the good news?

I find it helpful to think about the traditional disciplines of self denial and fasting in terms of the inner state that Jesus is calling us to. You might call that inner state humility or humbleness. The act of giving up something, even something symbolic for the forty days of Lent, is not really about the body but about the mind and the spirit. We all have bodily desires, but truth be told, they are fairly modest – a place to sleep, something to wear, something to eat. It’s the mind and the spirit, what psychologists call the ego, that gets us into trouble when they propel us beyond our basic needs.

The ego is about self importance and self gratification. The ego drives the hypocrites in today’s gospel, who want the public approval and status that came from conspicuous piety in their culture. In today’s culture we seek public approval and status in other ways, through wealth and power, but the ego rewards are the same. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Mark’s Jesus is so adamant that he not get public credit for his healings and miracles. Jesus knew that fame and power and ego belong to the realm of sin and self-isolation from God, which explains why he was able to resist the devil’s temptations in the wildnerness. Repentance means turning away from the blandishments of ego, which tempts us into self entitlement, the feeling that we are better than others and deserve more.

When Jesus tells us to practice our alms in secret, he is talking about something a lot more than just being a silent donor in a charity campaign. The idea of secrecy here is an example of self denial, a refusal to let the ego demand rewards and status that put the self before others and isolate the self from God. Somebody who gives without expecting anything in return, who sees the needs of others, who ranks the common good above their own needs, who is free of self importance and self entitlement, isn’t just a rare person. A person like that is someone who has glimpsed the kingdom of heaven and helped realize it on earth. Christians are especially poor at this, I fear, because we often want to enforce our piety and our morality upon others, which leads us back to the realm of the ego. We forget that it’s not our responsibility to enforce the kingdom of heaven. All we have to do is try to live it in such a way that it becomes attractive to others. Self denial is about, as Paul says, our being allowed to share “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21) without becoming self righteous ourselves.

The third voice of Ash Wednesday is mortality. If the message of our first reading from Joel is a call to some sort of frantic, last minute action to escape from 1disaster, then the imposition of ashes reminds us that there is no escape. Ash Wednesday tells us that we are all going to die. This knowledge can come as a gift if we choose to accept it, because it teaches us to deny ourselves in life. Self denial, the practice of giving up something for Lent, can be more than just a temporary inconvenience. It can be a way of reminding ourselves that our appetites, our ambitions, our senses of entitlement will all run up against the hard limit of our death.

As Christians at the start of Lent, we know that we follow a Saviour who is en route to the cross. If we heard the transfiguration story last Sunday, we know that Jesus comes from a place that is more glorious and wonderful than our ambitions and egos could possibly imagine. At the end of the transfiguration story, however, Jesus turns his back on that glory, to accompany his friends and journey with them. We know that there is no glory or reward where Jesus is going, only a hard and shameful death that the kings and rulers of the world cannot begin to comprehend. We may not understand exactly why Jesus had to die, but we know that it is the fullest possible expression of his determination to stand in solidarity with humanity. We know that God is willing to go where we all must go, even to death, and that through his willingness to die for us we are saved.

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our utter dependence on Christ. If we don’t repent and turn to him, we find ourselves, like the culture, slaves to our egos, serving our own interests for as long as we can until we are tragically surprised by the death we do out best to deny and ignore. Ash Wednesday does not seek to deny that life can be tragic – it asserts the reality of dust and our return to dust. What it does offer us is the knowledge, as Paul offers in our second reading, that Christ goes with us, to the grave and beyond, so that, as Paul says, we are “dying – and see – we are alive”. What better way can there be to think of the Christian life?

Tonight, as you go forward to receive the sign of ashes, the ashes will remind you that we are dying. The sign made by those ashes, the sign of the cross, repeats the sign made on your forehead at your baptism. The sign of the cross will remain bound to us, luminous and eternal, long after you and I have turned to dust, to mark us as belonging to the God who conquers sin and death. Knowing that you bear that mark of death will strengthen you for life, the life that God created you for, selfless, alive, and luminous. So go forward fearlessly tonight, and when you leave this place and the ashes have faded, remember that you are “dying, and wonderfully alive in Christ. Amen.

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