Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
As I explained Ash Wednesday to my four year old, I said this day reminds us that we are going to die and that sometimes we do bad stuff. She replied, “But Mom, I’m little. I’m not going to die for a long, long time.”
I asked her to put ashes on me. She’s used to the practice of an evening blessing, so she’s knows the ritual, but had to repeat the words after me. She wanted ashes before school, too, so I marked her, “you are dust and to dust you will return,” held her hand, walked her to school, and kissed her goodbye. As I watched her merge into the steady stream of students climbing off buses and out of cars, backpack bouncing as she ran into school, I was struck by what we had just done.
I was reminded by the child I have borne and committed to care for and be there for- that I will die. That I may not always be there for her. That even if I live as long as she does, there will be – there already have been- times when I fail her.
And we were reminded that she will die. Even while I thank God that she hasn’t had a reason to know that young ones die, I never forget it. She’s not too young to die. That’s what so poignant about this day. We try to hide the truth from ourselves and our children, but in the end, we can’t protect them from death. That’s where our trust in God really is tested. That’s when I realize most that I want to be God. It’s my job as her mother to make sure she’s safe, isn’t it?
But I know I do not have that much control. I am haunted by the knowledge that other parents have dropped off children who would never return from school. I can’t make sure kids are always nice to her. I can’t make her succeed.
The only way I can let her go- the only thing that gives me the strength to not rush back and pick her up and stick her in a bubble for the rest of her life- is to trust in God.
It’s not a trust that thinks that somehow my faithfulness or my prayer will protect her from all harm. It’s a trust the releases her into the wide vision of God’s mercy, recognizing that Jesus is with her today and will bring her in to the future creation. Ash Wednesday is about our recognition that we need to shift our trust- from looking for life and safety within ourselves to discovering we have already been gifted with those things by Jesus Christ.
Someone challenged me the other night when I was talking about Ash Wednesday. I was describing how this day might be one of the most important public witnesses we Christians make to the world. On this day, we participate in a public act of declaring that we are in the wrong. It’s one of the most counter cultural acts we do this year and we do it out in public.
These ashes mean that we will die, we have sinned, we have brokenness within us, and we have participated in systems that hurt others.
We mark them in the shape of a cross to remember Jesus’ choice to do all things to love us, be with us, and bring us into a healed creation and new life. He died on the cross to accomplish all this, knowing that we can’t accomplish it on our own.
Today, we do this act of repentance in public. I offered ashes and prayer out in town earlier today and tonight we’ve come together to make public confession and receive ashes. Throughout the day, I saw other people wearing dusty crosses- even ESPN sportscasters didn’t let their makeup artists wash their crosses away.
The person I was talking to found this public display to be altogether too public. He argued that the Gospel talks about Jesus telling people to stop being so public about their faith. But that’s a misreading of the text. The text frames it as Jesus questioning who will be rewarding their acts of piety. Are we out praying in the streets or parading our ashes so that others will think we’re holy? Are we trying to one up our neighbors by declaring we’ve given up not only chocolate but also Facebook for Lent? If being here at church, or taking up a Lenten practice, or wearing ashes all day is about impressing other people, then that’s missing the point. That’s what Jesus is preaching against.
However, Hebrew Bible talks about ashes as a communal act of repentance for shared sin. It’s a whole community declaring that they’ve created and embraced sinful structures of society that have broken away from God’s intention.
The public nature of this act is an antidote to the typical public voice of Christianity we’ve been shouting to the nation. So often the Christian voice says, “I’m right and you should do it my way.” Today we say to the world, “I’ve been wrong. I’ve hurt you.”
This day acknowledges our need for forgiveness. It’s about all of us taking a break from pretending we have it all together. It’s about accepting responsibility for the ways our actions and attitudes contribute to the brokenness and suffering of the world. Recent events have led many to become increasingly more aware of the price to the world of our inward looking lifestyles. We have seen refugees die without a welcome into safety, citizens attacked because of their race, and increasing lining up of oppositional forces. As a community, we have chosen against God. As a community, we need to repent. Whether we offer ashes one on one on a street corner or cafe, or within the church community, this is necessarily a public, communal act.
It might seem safe and private here in the church, but think about the difference between standing together declaring “I have sinned” and hearing “you are dust” over and over again- and an alternative of taking a little baggie of ash to mark yourself while looking into the mirror. We hear the reality of our sin – and we hear echoes around the room that declare we are not alone in our sin. Today your friends and neighbors will know that you know you are caught in sin. Then they will know that they are not in this struggle alone. We all carry guilt, we all need forgiveness, and Jesus has made it ours through his own faithfulness.
Through this public act, we declare that we are in need of forgiveness. We need the work Jesus has done for us. Jesus left heaven to come into the brokenness of our world. He has come to heal us, forgiving us and opening the way into a new creation where death no longer wins.
When we look at each other with ashen crosses above our eyes, we are reminded that we are in this brokenness together, and Christ alone will bring us in to a new creation. For one day we stop pretending that we have control over our ability to choose good rather than evil. We stop pretending that we have life together. We stop pretending to be God. Today, we put all our trust on God because there is no other option. Only God can wash away our sin, break the power of systems of evil, and breathe into us creatures of dust the life that is never taken away. God has already done this work, through Jesus, for you. Amen.
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