An Ash Wednesday Homily

Ash Wednesday 2017      March 1

In the name of God and of the Church I welcome you here today to this celebration of Ash Wednesday.   Some of you have been coming for years.  Some of you are perhaps new to this.  All of us came here today for reasons known only to you, and perhaps for reasons that are not quite clear even to yourself.  The important thing is, you came here today, and you’re helping us have a holy space here.

I once entered an Ash Wednesday service for the first time myself, years ago, as a young twenty-something adult.  I had never experienced one before, so it was all new.  I was drawn to the solemnity, the poetry of the service and of the hymns and anthems, and the simple witness of that dark smudged cross of ashes the priest imposed on my forehead with those words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This service told the truth.  I’m a sinner; I fail to do the good I want to do, and do the evil that I do not want to admit that I do.

That, and I’m going to die someday.  That day is sooner now than it was then, when I was in my early twenties.

This service told the truth, the whole of it.  I appreciated the honesty it of it, and the grace apparent in it.  I heard that day that God knows me, loves me, calls me forward. God knows I’m dust, the Psalm said.  God cares for my dusty little being as a loving parent, the Psalm said.  As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us, the Psalm said.  My sins, too.

And more than this, God knows everyone in line with me to receive those ashes and that holy meal of bread and wine.  God knows them and loves them. God intends me to know and love them too.

And more than this, God’s dominion is everywhere, the Psalm said. And the collect said that God hates nothing that God has made, which is a way of saying that God loves everything and everyone that God made.  That reminded me of the Creation story, in which God looked at everything that was made and said “It is good.  It is very good!”

Because God’s dominion is everywhere, and because God hates nothing that God has made, then we who come forward for ashes and again to receive the bread and the wine that is Christ are meant to be in the world as the hosts of angels are in the world, to do God’s bidding, to bless the Lord and to do the Lord’s will in all the places of God’s dominion, as the Psalm said.

I needed to hear all this that day.

I hope you will hear what you need to hear today.  I’m sure, actually, that you will, because the Spirit will make that happen in you.

In a few minutes you will be invited to a holy Lent.  Listen carefully to the invitation.  You will learn that Lent is a period of time of preparation for baptism or for the renewal of the promises and vows of our baptism.  Then we'll mark with Karissa, Rob, Kim, Elysia, Emilie, April, Tommy, and Sarah their journey toward reaffirming those baptismal vows before our bishop this spring.

Baptism, of course, unites us to Jesus Christ in his life, his death, his resurrection.  In baptism we take vows and make promises to renounce any of our tendencies to make a claim of sovereignty over our own lives, to think that all this is our dominion.  We all have that tendency toward the illusion that we are in control of our lives; that we can direct them toward whatever ends and purposes we imagine.

You’re here today because you probably have gotten wise to the fact that your life is fragile, that it is ultimately not in your control; that it is in fact a profound and holy gift.  It is an unspeakable gift.  God reigns in and through and over all things, and ultimately joy and fulfillment are found in desiring what God desires for this dominion.

The faith of a Christian is that we find our life after we renounce our claim of sovereignty over it.  We find our life as we find Christ’s life living in us.

So Lent is a time to reaffirm that we renounced our claim of sovereignty.

Three practices help us, our Gospel tells us:

  1. Give away wealth to benefit those who lack - renounce the hold that wealth has on us; our illusion that wealth can satisfy our deepest longings.  Use wealth as an investment in this new way of life in which God’s desires are becoming uppermost.

  2. Pray.  Go in secret to spend time alone with Jesus.  Let the love of God reach you in holy Scripture; speak the desires and questions of your heart alone to God.  As Thomas Keating tells us, bringing forward the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers and the great mystics and lovers of God in our tradition, merely consent to let God love you.  It’s divine therapy, he says.  In time, all the other voices in your past and from within that condemn you will fade. In time, the clear voice of God’s love for you will emerge.  In silence welcome the One who is beyond description, in whose being you have your own being.

  3. Fast.  Deny yourself in some way in order that you might hear the voice of Jesus resounding as he resisted the temptation of Satan in the wilderness, about which we’ll hear next Sunday.   Jesus said then: “Human beings do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Deny yourself, and let that desire be shaped toward what God wants.

As we continue Lent, I am reminded of these words from Gregory the Great from the 6th Century:

Give us, O Lord, the discipline

that springs from abstinence in outward things

with inward fasting,

so that we in heart and soul may dwell with thee.


Grant, O thou blessed Trinity;

grant, O unchanging Unity;

that this our fast of forty days

may work our profit and thy praise!*

*Hymnal 1982 #152.  Kind Maker of the World.  Gregory the Great (540-604)