To hear the unfiltered reality of Ash Wednesday is surprisingly refreshing. This day, this service, this time together is a little like naming the elephant in the room.
It’s refreshing in a way that only the truth can be… because we know deep down that we live in a death-denying culture which tries to tell us that we can live forever with the right combination of exercise, yoga, vacations and elective surgery. And it’s all very tempting.
So it’s refreshingly stark, what you and I and Christians all over the world do today. We gather to remind each other of the truth. To remind each other of our mortality. We tell each other the inescapable truth that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And when we do that – then and only then are we able to progress.
Because all the while we are denying the truth, God is delighting in it. This is what we hear in Psalm 51:
Indeed, you delight in truth | deep within me
and would have me know wisdom | deep within.
This truth we speak tonight about our mortality is only offensive if it’s heard as an insult and not a promise. It’s only offensive when it’s heard as being the last word. And it’s not. It’s not the last word. We stand at the beginning of a challenging journey. We are voluntarily entering into the Valley of the Shadow by walking with Jesus through the most painful days of his life. But even as we die with him, we are reminded that death’s power is limited in the face of the promise of Christ.
The same is true about confessing our sins. That’s sort of an outdated notion in a culture that celebrates self-help and self-improvement. You and I and everyone else have been convinced that if we just try hard enough, we can walk through the tightrope of life without ever missing the mark. Which puts the full weight of falling short on our own shoulders. And that’s just how we like it as Americans. Utterly self-reliant. But each week we make the same confession: We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
To confess our sins reminds us that we are, in fact, utterly dependent upon God. And that the purpose of life is to live in a dependent relationship not only with God but especially with each of God’s spectacular creations, that is, everyone else.
The reality is that we cannot free ourselves from the bondage of self. We cannot by our own understanding or effort disentangle ourselves from self-interest – and when we think that we can … we’re basically trying to do what is only God’s to do.
That is the great hope in Ash Wednesday, a great hope in admitting our mortality and our brokenness because only then do we get out of the way and allow God to be God. It is only then that we stop shouting our prayers on the street corners and laying up treasures on earth, frantically insisting that we are utterly self-sufficient. It is only then that we find that the only treasure that matters is our utter dependency, our broken-hearted need, the knowledge of the promise, that we are walking alongside Jesus step for step, even to the cross – that we go with him into the tomb and the darkness of death – and that we also go with him into the light of the resurrection.
With these ashes it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises that outlast our piety, our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.
Ash Wednesday is where birth meets death and you and I are powerfully reminded that the two are a package deal. We come from God – and we will return to God. So that I invite us to remember that Lent is not about punishment. It’s about peeling away layers of insulation and anesthesia that keep us from the truth of God’s promises.
It is during this time of self-reflection and sacrificial giving and prayer that we make our way through the overgrown and tangled mess of our lives. We trudge through the lies of our death-denying culture to seek the simple weighty truth of who we really are. We let go of all the pretenses and the destructive independence from God. We let go of defending ourselves. We let go of our hypocrisy. We let go of all those treasures on earth that we devote so much energy to acquiring. And only then can we see the treasure of God’s embrace in the privacy of our hearts, in the secret places that only we and God know. But we can’t begin to see this treasure and this God until we hack through our arrogance and certainty and cynicism and ambivalence. The Psalmist says that God delights in the truth that is deep in us. The truth. The truth that we are the broken and blessed beloved of God.
What is so wonderful about Ash Wednesday and Lent is that through being marked with the cross and reminded of our own mortality, we are set free. Reminded that the God of your salvation and mine, the same God who created us from the very earth to which we will return – the very God of Moses and Sarah and Abraham is also the God of you and of me. So as we receive these ashes and hear the promise that we are dust and to dust we shall return, you and I know that it is the truth and that the truth will set us free like nothing else. This is the fast that we choose. This is the treasure laid up for us. This is the promise of the creation, the promise of the cross.