LENT: A JOURNEY FROM ASHES TO FIRE
Homily for Ash Wednesday 2014
Ash Wednesday is serious stuff, in that it is a reminder of mortality, not just mortality in general, but our own, and that’s not a place where most of us like to dwell.
The ashes are a reminder of fire that once burned brightly and hot; ashes are remnants, signs of something that used to be, and as such may remind us of younger days, the passion of youth, the burning desires and ideals that once motivated us. They might remind us as the Church that we are now something of a remnant people. And they warn us that fire, untended, can go out. For us on this day, the ashes become a symbol of the spiritual journey which begins in death and leads toward life.
“The Imposition of Ashes” is a confusing term. The ashes are not imposed – it’s voluntary. The Church no longer imposes much of anything on people. The ashes need to be received voluntarily, as a gift – as an act of agreement that they speak of reality and truth in a world so full of hype and deception — an act of consent to embrace a symbol of death as an expression of hope that death is not the final word. In Lent, Christians begin by embracing their mortality, dropping out of the delusional game of trying to avoid aging, of trying to avoid appearing to be what we are, of denying that suffering and vulnerability and death are actually essential aspects of life. I don’t think you can see through to immortality without opting out of the massive exercise in denial that has become ingrained in our culture.
Ash Wednesday is a reminder of mortality while being a summons to new life. Lent is about dying to Death, that is, departing from things which encumber and stress and diminish and distract us, and it is about coming to life. Lent is a renewing and re-dedicating of our journey which leads toward Life – that Life we find in the person of Christ, in the context of the Church, his body on earth.
This morning, at Robinson cemetery, I said in the burial office the very words we will say tonight: “O Christ … you only are immortal, the creator and maker of all; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created us, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
As we placed the urn in the ground, I was reminded of the profoundly confident symbolism we embrace as Christians – I was reminded of Jesus’ comment: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
We Christians have this weird and counter-intuitive tendency to befriend death – to embrace it and its potential to transform. Lent is all about the strange power of the Passion of Christ to bring life through death. Some people look at death and they want to look away; Christians not only look at death – they see through it.
As we placed the ashes in the ground this morning – the remnants of a fire – a life — that once burned brightly, we did so in trust that a new life is destined to burst into flame. I was reminded of Teilhard de Chardin’s comment: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
In 1654, on November 23, mathematician, inventor and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that from half past ten in the evening until half past midnight he had an experience he could only describe as “Fire!” He had an experience of the risen Christ that he felt he had helped to crucify, and that experience shaped the rest of his life.
Yes, we know that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” All of us go down to the dust, and yet even at the grave we can sing: “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” We know we are mortals, merely dust, but within ourselves we must know that Christ is the flame of new life. As the poet Rumi said: “Set your life on fire and seek those who fan your flames.” Or, as an ancient monk of the desert said “I am become flame.”
We look at the ashes and we are meant to hear a summons to look within and find our inner flame, to stop allowing inertia and death to define us and to embrace once again the Spirit of the living Christ.
So we sing tonight:
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.
O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
That is the path we walk in Lent.
So, in the traditional words, “I invite you to a holy Lent – by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and alms-giving, and by reading and meditating upon the Word of God.” I invite you to make a new commitment to walk the Christian path, following Christ on the journey of faith, that leads us from ashes to Easter, from death into life.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Joel 2: 1—3; 12—17 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain-offering and a drink-offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?” ’
2 Corinthians 5: 20—6: 2 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him,* we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
Matthew 6: 1—6; 16—21 Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust* consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust* consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.