Ash Wednesday 2019
We had a bit of a pancake feast at the Vicarage yesterday; lots of lemons and maple syrup. And I was delighted to hear that our messy sermon group had similarly good time last Sunday – not just lemons and maple syrup chocolate and raspberry sauces and other sweet treats. That was yesterday – Shrove Tuesday, Mardi-gras. Today tells a different story, for today Lent begins. Today, in particular, is the time to reflect on the things that keep us away from a healthy relationship with God and God’s world; to bring ourselves in sorrow to the place of meeting and repent. Today focuses our mind for the time of penance and abstinence to come. That’s why we set ourselves challenges in Lent – to do without things in order to focus on what truly matters.
Let’s remind ourselves what the ash of Ash Wednesday is all about. First, ash is about our mortality – the ash we received is the dust from which we came and to which we will return. Ash reminds us that what is here and now is transitory – it points us to eternity, raises our eyes to a different horizon. Thus, ash brings us to the desert – a place of dust – where we wrestle, as Jesus himself did, with what is of eternal value, and what is transitory, bringing short term gratification but long term damage.
Secondly, ash stands for our sorrow. Job, heartbroken for the loss of his family and his possessions sits on the has heap and clothes himself in sackcloth; an expression of exactly how he felt – maybe an act of protest to the God to whom Job was faithful, but who had failed to protect him in his hour of need. This evening, as we kneel to be ashed, is a good time to bring our sorrow and our protests to God; to be prepared to sit on our ash heaps until we get an answer from the God we serve, the God we believe loves us, and who has our hearts.
Thirdly, ash stands for penance. There are many images in the bible which involve refining and purifying by fire. The predominant image of hell is of fire, burning away the sins of its unfortunate occupants. God is like a refining fire, a purifier of silver, burning away impurities until the bronze, silver or gold shines out. Today we begin our season of penance, repentance, offering ourselves to God’s refining fire so we may shine out like pure gold, God’s holy people reflecting God’s glory.
This all sounds very frightening indeed: that’s because it is! We have to remember that, today and each Sunday in Lent, we bring ourselves to the Eucharist. As we kneel to receive the bread and wine we surely know that our mortality, our sorry and our penance are all help within the encompassing and eternal love and faithfulness shown to us in Jesus; the one who carried our sins through the agony of the cross to the eternal joy of resurrection. Although we are mortal, our lives fleeting, we receive the bread and wine of eternal life. Although we carry burdens of sorrow, Jesus offers us hope and joy. Although we are weighed down with our sinfulness, we are promised (and indeed given) forgiveness by the God whose name is love.
So, Lent is a sober time, but this sobriety is built on the bedrock of eternal love, hope, forgiveness and joy.
May God grant us a holy and profitable Lent.