Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017
1st Mar 2017
A S H W E D N E S D A Y S E R M O N
The appeal that we make in Christ’s name is : Be reconciled to God.
1 Corinthians 5.21.
Ash Wednesday offers an invitation that we might easily refuse. For it is an invitation to enter a wilderness and to meet Christ there. This is the desert which is founded on nothing, an empty place. It is the place which invites the emptying of self. And it is in the emptying of self that we may discover in Jesus a way back to God, and our reconciliation with Him. And so the desert becomes the place of utmost Christian instruction. In a drawing by William Blake a little man looks up to the moon, connected to earth by a ladder and cries “I want! I want!” But Lent asks us this question: Is my life based on the satisfaction of a myriad of human desires, and if so, how is it that such satisfactions have not entirely satisfied? The desert is the place we go to find out why this is so, and we go with Jesus as we acknowledge and experience in Him God’s generous and sustaining love, forgiveness and restoration. Lent begins here…
Christ goes into the desert to decide for God and to reject those things which are not of God. The act of deciding-for-God is vital. We find it written into one of most popular English books ever written: ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. The overcoming by Jesus of temptation in the wilderness has set Lent upon its centuries old course. It sets us on our way, too. It does this not by the imposition of a whole series of small restrictions, even though certain restrictions on our wanting may prove beneficial. It does it in Paul’s appeal that above all things, we should ‘be reconciled to God’. We are being asked to draw near.
The imposition which we receive for Lent is the imposition of ashes. The ashes are a simple expression of the basic nature of our mortality, of the finiteness of our existence. We are to be reminded that ‘we are dust, and unto dust we shall return’. Notice this word ‘imposition’; which is an unsettling word. As the ashes are imposed upon us there is the call to respond. To respond and to act. In particular, to act quite apart from what may feed our body but in fact starve or hurt our very soul. The Ash Wednesday message cuts to the heart of what we are, mere mortals, but then beckons us forward to what God has made us to be.
It may seem strange that the injunction in today’s first reading; the one which asks us to hide our piety from others and to wash our faces when Ash Wednesday will see us display on our foreheads the black, ash cross. But this cross is there not to tell the world how pious we are, but of the God we acknowledge. He is over all things, and because he is over all things, our mortality, our very being and even our own dying will find its true purpose and destiny in Him. ‘Dust’ is, in this context, an alternate name for our mortality.
This morning Andrew and I, bearing the blessed ashes, the mixture of burnt leaves and holy oil, and carrying our processional crucifix, stationed ourselves outside the Megara Hotel in front of a tree on the Euston Road. This has never been done by our church before, but has been done as ‘Ashes to Go’ in the Southwark Diocese. This morning for little more than an hour and a half we invited commuters to receive the Imposition of Ashes and sixty-eight persons in all were given the Ash Wednesday anointing. Two busy waitresses rushed out of the hotel delighted that the ashing was being offered, a German mother and father and their three daughters were ashed together, and then a young mother and father were ashed and asked us to ash their little children in prams; strange but telling of our Ash Wednesday observances that even little ones were to be reminded of their own mortal status. I observe two things about this anointing in the street. Firstly that if the Church makes itself vulnerable and available, then this will be blessed. Secondly, when we place our trust in the God who is there in the midst of us; there too in the Rite of the Anointing with Ashes on this first day of Lent, we truly proclaim the power of the Cross, which lies in and through and above all things and all people in the holding out of God’s everlasting love. What does this love look like? I hear you say. I say, we say in the Church, with every growing confidence, “It looks like this!”
Ash Wednesday proffers an invitation that we receive with reluctance. The invitation to come away to a place of deeper knowing through which, through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, we may advance in the hope which he has set before us. And it is never too late to make a beginning and to start as we mean to go on, with a reminder of our mortality and to come to Jesus, the source of all life and meaning. The one who emptied himself of all but love… Henri Nouwen.