Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2019
6th Mar 2019
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 comes to us as the offering of an invitation that we find difficult to accept. It is the 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. It invites the offering of ourselves to advance in the hope which God has set before us. We are not offering who we think we are, what we do, or what life demands of us but ourselves only. 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 God’s generous and sustaining love, forgiveness and restoration. Lent begins here…we may give things up or take things on but the essential call is the one which would recognise that God is before all else.
What might we be like if our own wanting were to issue out of God alone? 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 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’, become one in Him, and accept Him as our life’s true meaning and purpose.
This morning as we offered ‘ashes to go’ on Euston Road I was aware of the joy certain individuals felt in recognising that the cross of Christ was being shown there on the street and that the anointing with ashes was being offered for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are a simple reminder 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’; an unsettling word. As the ashes are imposed upon us there is a call to act. In particular, to act quite apart from what may feed the body but in fact starve or hurt the soul. The Ash Wednesday message cuts to the heart of what we are, mere mortals, but then calls us forward to what God has made us to be. This is liberating as we free ourselves from the imposition of our own wills.
I observe two things about this morning’s anointing in the street. Firstly that if the Church makes itself vulnerable and available, then this will be blessed. The street for the Church can be the place of radical witness. Secondly, when we place our trust in God in the Rite of Imposition of Ashes on this first day of Lent, we proclaim the power of the Cross, which lies in and through and above all things and all people in the showing of God’s particular kind of love. What does this love look like? I hear you say. I say, we say in the Church, “It looks like this!” It looks like a cross made of ashes which reminds us of who we are and draws us closer to what God would have us be”.
It may seem strange that the injunction in today’s first reading is one which asks us to hide our piety from others and to wash our faces when Ash Wednesday sees 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 own living and dying find their true end in Him. As St Paul reminds us “If we have become on with him in a death like his we will become one with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6.3). But for now, on this challenging Ash Wednesday, the Church’s forward progress is well and truly set down.
Ash Wednesday proffers an invitation that we receive only with reluctance. This is 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. It is never too late to make a beginning and to start, with a reminder of our mortality, and then to come to Jesus, the source of all life and meaning. Jesus, the one who emptied himself of all but love… Henri Nouwen.