More than any other day of the church calendar, this is the time for truth. This is not a celebration. Specifically in this service of ashes, it is the time and place to speak truth to God. Now we put aside our velvet gloves, turn off the soft lights, and turn on the bright lights of a criminal lineup. Here we go at it bare-knuckled with God – knowing that we will be on the losing end of the symbols, signs, and sounds which give meaning to Ash Wednesday.
We are here to look at ourselves when all the pretenses are stripped away, when all the excuses are seen for what they are. Now we say to God, “I am wrong and you are right. I confess, God, that the wrongs I have done, the sins that have slid right away, are my fault, my grievous fault, my own most grievous fault.” No one else is responsible for my wrongdoing. We are here to say, “I have bowed down before other Gods, I have betrayed those closest to me. I have not lived up to your expectations of me.”
We are also beginning the journey toward Easter when we will say, “The Lord is Risen, he is risen indeed.” Easter begins long before the angel came to the empty tomb. The countdown to Easter begins as we hide behind the bushes in the Garden where soldiers have come to arrest an innocent man.
He prays so intently that his sweat falls like great drops of blood. Eventually he was martyred, killed, crucified in shame by the legitimate, respected, honorable, religious people in Jerusalem. He was put on a cross outside the capital city of David by the people of the promise, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was crucified because almost no one really believed he was the son of God. We put him to death before his talk about a kingdom brought down the wrath of Caesar once again on our tiny nation. We put him on trial and then sent false witnesses to make sure he could not escape capital punishment.
But we live in year 2010. We are aware of the whole story of Jesus and his resurrection. We already know the forgiveness which God has made for us through Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is a vivid reminder of the whole story of God as we come to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to the dust you shall return.”
Another pastor wrote that ‘there is in the very act of imposing ashes, a stripping away of every worldly pretense, every social distinction, every personal secret. There is no joy in all this. There is no practiced self-deception and no carefully honed pride. Ashes are the great leveler among us,” he wrote.
Ashes are about being burned, about dying, about the irretrievable loss of hope, the loss of pride, the loss of self-satisfaction. Ashes are about our baptism into Christ, because the old Adam is drowned in baptism. Ashes are about burning, destruction, and the death of the old Adam in each of us, in order to bring forth the new Adam. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Like the legendary Phoenix, the bird that rises from the ashes of its own burning, so Jesus Christ in our baptism connects us with his sinless life. We are raised in him.
The power and the glory of Easter begin to emerge only when we strip away every veneer of trying to save ourselves, and realize that we are dust. We are also people who live by faith, and who call on God day by day, who place ourselves in his hands, firmly believing that his will for us is more desirable than any choice we might make for ourselves.
Until we breathe our last, there is always room for growth, and if we wish to be true to the creator who made us, we must always be growing. Not wanting to grow, not seeking opportunity for enlarging our response to God’s mercy, suggests that we are content with our present measure of unbelief. Did God make a mistake in revealing so much of himself in Jesus Christ, and we really need only part of what he offers?
We are here to ask help for our unbelief. In worship, we are before God. We are not violating the warning of Jesus about practicing piety to be seen by others. We do not come here to be seen by others. We are in the midst of family, friends, people who know us. We couldn’t fool each other if we tried. We respect each other as family members, as fellow believers, and because of the burdens and cares and personal life stories we know about each other, mere outward shows of piety would not go undetected.
We are not here to impress God. We might hope God is the only one who remembers our sins, and we wish he didn’t. There is scarcely one of us who doesn’t look back sadly at some difficult and disturbing chapter or verse from the past, and say,
“I don’t know why I did that. I truly don’t know why I said that.” Truth is, we may not. But God does, and still loves us. The reality of life is that all our ivory towers of prayer are forever turning into ashes that mark only the ruins of our dreams. Truth disturbs us.
At the same time, we should find great comfort and fulfillment in these familiar words and phrases and forms of worship. God has promised to be wherever his people cluster around the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments offered. We obey his command when we come together to receive his Body and Blood. After all, God is our only strength, our only refuge and strength. What we do here in ceremony, we must be serious about long after the ashes are washed away.
We turn our faces toward Easter when we shall welcome the risen Christ with as much passion and love as our mere humanity will allow. Till then, however, we sink into the mystery of our own willful sins. We give place to the truth about ourselves and our death. Until then, we look at God and life and others as though the ashes are still there.
As we look to Easter, we are shaped by those words, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to the dust you shall return.’
It is Gospel that God loves us, forgives us, accepts us, and assures us that from the ashes of ruin, we shall move forward to lead a new life with Jesus Christ,
in eternity, forever, beginning anew tonight.