Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Grace, mercy,
and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus
Christ. Amen.

In 1985, Paul
Simon, of Simon and Garfunkel musical fame, released an album entitled, “Graceland.” In the title song of that album, a
mournful Simon sings of a man, lost and lonely, struggling to make sense of life
in the midst of his sorrow. He is hurt. He is reeling from the wreckage of
broken relationships. The man in the song makes a point of telling his
listeners that when you are in pain, it is not necessary for anyone to call
attention to the obvious.

I feel
somewhat the same as Lent begins again this year. More than a decade after the
fact, we still live with the effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11,
2001. We have fought wars that have killed or maimed thousands of young
Americans, and untold numbers of the enemy and those who simply lived in close
proximity to the violence.

We live in a
world of broken relationships, not only with our enemies, but sometimes even with
longtime allies who don’t see eye to eye with us on certain things. We
live with the daily news of shattered lives: People trampled in religious
festivals. A diplomatic compound overrun by lawless thugs who impose by
violence what they cannot achieve by reason or merit. A school in Connecticut bathed in
the blood of children by a deeply troubled person. It can happen on the
streets and in the neighborhoods of our own cities and towns.

too often—the trouble finds us even within the confines of our own homes
and families. Our world seems more shattered and broken than we would like to
admit. We cannot hide our heads in the sand, and hope that danger will pass us
by. Death is our daily companion, even if it doesn’t touch us directly.

Against this
backdrop, our Lenten season begins on this Ash Wednesday. We hear chilling
words spoken as ashes are smeared on our foreheads, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!”
We can ask, “Do we really need this
reminder of the fragility of life? Haven’t we been bombarded with enough
images that any denial or avoidance of loss and death would be nearly
impossible? Aren’t there other words that might be better suited to the

These are the
thoughts that might cascade through our minds as we enter with earnestness this
season of repentance and renewal. How can any of us forget that we are all
dust, now more than ever? Yet we need both to speak and to hear these words
now. They are a reminder of what is real now, and a promise of what will be
real for eternity. These words, along with the cross of Christ on our brows,
represent both a warning and a promise.

In Lent, we
strip away all of the frills, to get at the basics of what it means to be
Christian. This goal has its roots in the ancient purpose of the season of Lent.
This purpose has largely been forgotten in much of Christianity, though some
are rediscovering its meaning.

Lent was, in
its earliest form, a time for preparing prospective Christians for Baptism at
the great overnight Easter Vigil worship service. This service lasted from
Sundown to Sunrise,
and was the primary festival of the early church. Those being readied
for Baptism would, as part of their final preparations, leave behind all of the
things of this world that got in the way of their relationship with God. They
spent time in fasting, prayer, serving the poor, and other disciplines of the
Christian life.

These were things
that—at one time—most Christians did year-round, not just during
Lent. But the new initiates went through this final instruction, being
informed about what being a Christian was all about. They prepared for lives
of loving service in the world.

So the text
from Matthew for this day speaks clearly to them, and to us. We do not do such
preparations in order to be seen by others, to gain something for ourselves. We
do such preparations to rid ourselves of all things, to empty ourselves. We do
this in order to be filled by God in Christ. We do these things, not to be
miserable, but rather in joyful anticipation that by losing ourselves, and giving
ourselves, we will be truly found. We hope to do these things not as phony
hypocrites, but rather in order to be truly aware and genuine about our origins,
and our destiny.

In Lent, we
are called to rediscover who we are as God’s people. We are called to
face our fears and our failures with courage and dignity, relying on
God’s love and mercy. We are called to be God’s children.

God does not
need to hear the words of confession that come out of our broken human spirits
and our Sin for His own sake. He already knows what we’ve done, even
better than we do. No, instead we need to speak these words of repentance and
our pleas for mercy as reminders to ourselves
of our link with our human past.

The ashes on
our foreheads remind us that we, like Adam and Eve, are made from the dust of the
ground. We, too, have our origin with God’s power to create. We are in
this world because of a God who loved us and formed us. Just as surely, we die
in that same moment we are connected to Adam and Eve, for we also share in their
rebellion, and their judgment.

Like our
ancient parents, we will return to the dust of the ground as evidence that we
will not endure in the world forever. Each Lent, we learn once again to face
this grim reality with truthfulness and courage.

In the words
of our spoken confession, and in the discipline of Lent, there is another
reality. It is just as real as the death that we face, no longer with shame
but rather with renewed hope and joy. The other reality is that of God’s
love and forgiveness. It is the present and future re-creation that God is
working in us at all times, but especially during Lent. The sign of the cross
on our foreheads serves not only to remind us that we are dust, but also as a
reminder that God has a claim on us in Baptism. We do not know all of
the particulars of our final destiny in Christ, but we do know that we
belong to Christ, and the ashen cross is a reminder of that as well.

The sign of
the cross we wear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday is not there just one day a
year, even though that may be the only time it’s visible. No, that cross
is burned on our foreheads by the fire of the Holy Spirit, to mark us as lambs
of God’s own flock in Baptism. It doesn’t just mark us as
Christians—it marks us as Christ’s.
We show it once a year to remind ourselves that we belong to God. To remind
ourselves that we die, daily, to sin. To remind ourselves that Jesus’
resurrection is our future, too.

We will
return to dust, yes, but even then, God is not finished with us. We renew the
Baptismal covenant of God in this season of repentance, renewal and rejoicing. We
all will be cleansed in the Easter Vigil’s Baptismal Flood.

Like the
early Christians in preparation for their membership in the Church, we too,
shed the things of this world and make room for God to fill us, empty though we
may often be. Though the process may be painful—for death always is—it
will ultimately lead us to light and life in Christ. So we repent. We are
renewed in Christ. We rejoice in the marvelous future of God that unfolds around
us, even in the midst of our all-too-broken-and-dying world. Exactly how
we should prepare ourselves during Lent is really a matter of what it is in our
life that we need to give over to God. What is it that prevents us from
being the servants of Christ year-round that we are called to be?

It may be
that fasting, prayer, and charitable works are fine for you, but they may not
be right or adequate for everyone.

Some yearn
for reconciliation and peace with their brothers and sisters in Christ, or even
with their enemies. They yearn for an end to hostility. We can all yearn for
what only God can give, and which only our pride now prevents.

The good news
is that your past and mine—with their connections to the brokenness of
all humanity—and our futures—connected to God’s redemptive
love—come together during this season of Lent, just as they come together
at all times for the followers of Jesus Christ

Perhaps, like
the man in Paul Simon’s song, we do not need to be reminded of the
obvious. Or maybe, it is just this sort of return to the obvious that we all
need. For the tone in “Graceland
eventually changes as the song goes on. At first it seems as though Paul Simon
is singing about a pilgrimage to Elvis’ home in Memphis. Then he sings, “I’ve reason to believe we all will be
received in Graceland.”

While that
belief in being received in “grace land” cannot be applied to all
people, it certainly can and does apply to all who have been marked and sealed
by the cross of Christ.

We discover,
regardless of what the songwriter intended, that the brokenness gives way to
hope—hope in a land of grace where God will welcome all of us home. Lent
marks again the earnest journey home for us. God’s flock, marked as His
own. Wear your “brand”—your mark as Christ’s
own—in humility, but never in shame. It is the obvious reminder of
God’s love, and the unmistakable mark of His claim on you, the lambs of
His flock. In the Shepherd’s holy name, Jesus (
X), Amen.