Homily for Ash Wednesday
17th Feb 2021
A S H W E D N E S D A Y S E R M O N
“Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,
turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”
The Christian Call for fasting and obedience comes after a year in which we have already been fasting. We have fasted long accepted normalities, we have fasted the long-accustomed routines and rhythms of our daily lives. Under Covid restrictions, we have fasted freedom of movement and school, church and work routines. We have fasted the old predictabilities. We have fasted long trusted and physically close contact with many of our loved ones, and we have fasted the sustaining spiritual energy that our live congregational worship once gave us despite the rescue of ‘Zoom’ . The past year of Coronavirus has entered the world upon a whole year of Lenten fast. The words of the priest at this evening’s rite of the imposition of ashes come as a reminder of our mortality – “dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return”. In the past year, this has been a constant thread in our consciousness of the Coronavirus and its dreadful spread – that we are mortal and that our lives hang on a delicate thread suspended in very provisional time. Hence the reminder of the composition of our bodies as dust. I remember my mother describing our house-proud neighbour in whose living room there was not ‘a speck of dust’. Dust should become just a nuisance to be polished or wiped clean. It is rather unnerving to be reminded that this same dust is made up of human skin particles, which are being shed by human bodies all the time. Dust is a reminder of our lives as bearing continual movement and change and loss. The acknowledgement of our mortality is equally a reminder of the One to which we owe our mortality – God alone. God it is who follows us “…through the changes and chances of this fleeting world.” God is the constant.
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. This is the desert which invites the emptying of self. And it is in the self-emptying that we may discover in Jesus a way back to God, and our reconciliation with Him. Knowing who we really are and knowing who God really is. And so the desert becomes the place of utmost realisation. It invites the offering of ourselves to advance in the hope which God has set before us in Jesus Christ “…just as I am without one plea”.
Lent asks us a question: Is my life based on the satisfaction of a myriad of human desires and distractions, and if so, how is it that such satisfaction has not left me satisfied? What might life be like if my wanting were to issue out of God? Our Lord 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. No. 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. To wait upon Him, listen to Him, converse with Him, learn to do his will…
As 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 of Christ, which lies in and through and above all things and all people in the showing of God’s particular kind of generous and selfless love. This love looks tonight like a cross made of ashes. It reminds us of our mortality and calls from us a longing for communion with God. This is a strong message for the beginning of Lent.
This ash cross is not shown to tell the world how pious we are, but of the God we are acknowledging. He is over all things, and in the Cross of Jesus he is our mortality; our own living and dying. 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 in motion.
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.