Ash Wednesday 2017
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
March 1, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
A couple weeks ago one of our church friends sent me a news article about the availability of free glitter ash. It’s made by “mixing professional makeup-grade purple glitter with traditional ashes.”1 My thought was, “More Mardi Gras than Ash Wednesday!” My hunch is that the third graders who burned palms this past Sunday to make the ashes we’ll receive today would have been totally on board with adding glitter. Purple certainly is the proper liturgical color. Somehow glitz seems wrong for the solemn occasion, though.
As I read the article I also reacted to the description of ashes being “smeared on the foreheads of Christians to symbolize repentance.”2 The ashes don’t always cooperate but I always try really hard to trace a recognizable cross on people’s foreheads. There is no other day of the year when we so publically, visually, silently but powerfully proclaim our faith. Remember the classic question, “If it were a crime to be a Christian, would anyone ever suspect you are one?” There’s no room for doubt about our religious affiliation on Ash Wednesday.
Now if the world can tell we’re Christians the way we live our lives after today, till and beyond Easter, how wonderful that would be! The whole point of Lent is that we should move into more intimate communion with our Lord. Our Gospel today (we hear the same one every year) gives three ways for us to draw closer to our Lord’s heart in this sacred season, this “springtime of the soul.” These 3 spiritual disciplines compose what’s called the “sacred tripod” of Lent:
· Almsgiving (an old-fashioned word for gifts of money to the poor; I’d expand that to include other charitable acts)
Prayer is time dedicated to conversation with the Lord, both speaking and listening. A good rule of thumb is, if we’re too busy to pray, we’re too busy. You may say, “Pastor Mary, you have NO IDEA what my schedule is like!!” You’re right. But I still come back to: if we’re too busy to pray, we’re too busy. I can absolutely believe there is currently no more time in your day to devote to one more thing. But then the Lord asks us to create time for prayer by deleting something else. Is there one TV show or one podcast you can let go by the wayside till Easter? In the car or on the train, could you listen to something spiritual, inspirational, rather than the news? Instead of hitting the snooze button on your alarm, could you groggily get up and capture an extra 5 minutes to read “Christ in Our Home” before you head out the door? If you’re going to miss worship over the weekend, could you join us on Wednesday morning at 7 or Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. to be sure to spend time in the Lord’s house, with the family of faith, each week?
Who knows what we’ll hear when we pray, especially if we allow it to be a 2-way conversation. We’ll certainly hear that we’re loved and we’ll surely hear the call to love and serve God and neighbor better. So prayer may lead to self-denial – the desire to identify with our Lord who suffered for our sin, to recognize that we have been “bought with a price,” to sacrifice a small something in order to remember more frequently the One who sacrificed everything for us. We may also choose self-denial for the sake of others – to be in solidarity with those who suffer for lack of the material blessings we enjoy in such abundance, and to pass along the cash that we save by denying ourselves some creature comfort in order to alleviate the suffering of others. That is “almsgiving,” simply put.
So why do we trace the cross in ash on the foreheads of believers? The ash symbolizes death (perhaps now more than ever, with cremation being so prevalent), and reminds us that we “are dust, and to dust [we] shall return.” St. Paul said, “The wages of sin is death,” that our sin is directly linked to our mortality. We also believe that our sin is responsible for Jesus’ death, that the crucifixion was the consequence of our sin. So we mourn, we repent of our failures in love, not just because of the havoc they wreak in our lives, because of the natural consequences they bring crashing down on our heads, but also because of the consequences to others, including and especially our Lord.
The ash represents death; the cross represents life. What do we proclaim on Good Friday? “Behold the life-giving wood of the cross, on which was hanged the salvation of the world.” For us it is the tree of life. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever in Holy Baptism. This is why a “smearing” of ash doesn’t cut it as a description of our Ash Wednesday ritual. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but that is not the end of us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said as he was led to the gallows in Flossenburg Concentration Camp at the end of World War II: “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” Amen
1Kimberly Winston, “’Glitter Ash Wednesday’ hopes to sparkle for LGBT Christians, supporters,” Religious News Service, Feb. 15, 2017.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham