Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Here we are again, Ash Wednesday. For several hundred years now, Christians have been marking this season with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes, practices our Jewish siblings undertook for thousands of years before. This first of 40 holy days, leading to Easter, is a time for reflection, renewal, and repentance. You’re invited, as you feel moved, to mark this season on a daily basis or a weekly basis with something old or new. With prayer, learning, and listening. But first, we’re going to talk about death.
As you’ve noticed already from the words we’ve said together, and as you’ll notice as we continue, Ash Wednesday is a day of remembering our mortality. We live in a death-denying world full of death. If you access news on any given day, you will hear about death somewhere in the world, or impending doom somewhere in the world. It’s a big world. Ash Wednesday does not exist to rain down more horror on your already harried soul. It’s an attempt to reframe our relationship to our own guaranteed deaths.
If you’ve participated in Ash Wednesday before, you know that you will soon have the opportunity to receive ashes mixed with oil in the shape of a cross on your forehead.
As each person receives these ashes, I will say “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Your baptism, perhaps many years ago now, also included a cross on your forehead, made with oil, without ashes. A pastor or priest probably said that you were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” In your baptism, you were ceremonially introduced to the Christian life, welcomed into the family of God. Today, we bring your life’s beginning and your life’s eventual ending full circle into one sacred moment.
You were born beloved, you will die beloved.
You may not hear that as good news, because you may be young and you may be healthy, but it is one of best things I know to be true. God loves you. God created you just as you are, perfect and holy and full of life. And God created you mortal; you will, like all of God’s beloved creatures, die.
On this holy day, we are simply going to notice that. We are not going to lament our eventual deaths, we are not going to prevent our eventual deaths, and we are not going to lie about our eventual deaths. We are simply going to sit.
This, dear ones, is a radical act. Our world is full of more people now than have ever lived and died—can you even conceive of such a number?—and we are caught up, constantly, in trying to evade death. We have anti-aging face creams, and we have cosmetic surgery, and we have vitamins and supplements and crash diets and all manner of strategies for lying to ourselves.
But not tonight. Tonight, we have ashes and oil, and we have bread and wine. Tonight, we will remember that we are dust, and remember that Jesus lived and died.
Tomorrow, we will begin our season of presence and practice. Throughout the season of Lent, we have the opportunity to notice the presence of God in our lives more acutely—not because God is more present but because we are more present.
Starting next Tuesday, you can try a new thing for this season by saying Morning Prayer with Emily at 8:30am. It’s not a thing you usually do, I know, and that’s part of why you’re invited to do it. How might your day be shaped if you started it with 20 minutes of praying, reading, and listening? If you have class or work at that time, or really just cannot bear to be here that early in the morning—which I do not hold against you for even one minute—what other way might you mark these six weeks? If you joined us for rosary-making on Monday, you can practice using that. If you didn’t, we have extras and you can borrow one any time; we can teach you how it works.
Maybe, for the next 40 days, you’ll start your day with reading or journaling or music, instead of scrolling on Instagram before dragging yourself out of bed. Maybe you’ll end your day with reading or journaling or music instead of scrolling on Instagram until you fall asleep.
Maybe you’ll go for some walks in the arboretum, if it’s not raining. Maybe you’ll learn to cook some new recipes at home. Maybe you’ll notice the time you spend each day doing things you don’t want to be doing—whatever those are—and you’ll try replacing those things with things that make you feel whole, and peaceful, and good.
You may have grown up in a church community that focused heavily on Lenten fasting, or perhaps not. If you did, and if this season calls to mind shame and scarcity, I hope you will enter this season this year with a clean slate. The practice of sacrifice, of “giving up” something for this season, has perhaps done more harm than good to us, in our modern American culture, in particular.
These 40 days are not an exercise in perfectionism. These 40 days are not a do-over on a new year’s resolution diet. These 40 days can be an exercise in shedding that which causes us pain and harm, and putting on that which brings us hope and peace and freedom. Because the God who loves you, dear ones, desires your devotion, not your depletion.
Whatever practices you might add, whatever activities you might drop, the goal is closeness to God. The goal is to get rid of all the stuff that gets in the way. It is important, as we routinely confess, to “repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.”
Lent is a time for recognizing where we have sinned, and committing ourselves to knowing better and doing better. The goal is a change of heart, perhaps visible only to you. Our scripture tonight is somewhat ironic, as it chides us, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” on the day where we are literally wearing our piety on our faces.
Please do not worry about creating Lenten content for your Facebook friends to consume; “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your [God] who is in secret; and your [God] who sees in secret will reward you.” These 40 days are yours, dear ones. Repent when you have caused harm to others, and turn and face your God, who loves you.
You were born beloved, you will die beloved. Thanks be to God.