Sunday, March 9, 2014

5 March 2014 -- Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  — 5 March 2014
Trinity, Iowa City – 12:15 pm & 7:00 pm

Joel 2:1-2,12-17   |  Psalm 103:8-14  |  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  |  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverum revertéris.

One.  Some of you may be aware that in recent years a new liturgical, or quasi-liturgical, custom has arisen in many parishes, usually called “Ashes To Go.”  What this means is that instead of waiting for people to walk through the church door to attend an Ash Wednesday service, a team of the church’s ministers, ordained and/or lay, go out into the urban streets of their city and offer the imposition of ashes, a sign of our mortality and penitence, to any passers-by who wish to receive them – a way of outreach and expression of interest and concern for the lives of people who are the church’s neighbors but not usually its members.  As nearly as I can determine, this began four years ago in Chicago, and as the saying goes, it promptly went viral.  It’s now all over the country, and in other parts of the world as well.  Apparently mostly Episcopalian or Anglican at this point, but also some Roman Catholics and Lutherans are joining in.  I’m not arguing either for or against this new custom – I think there are things to be said on both sides as to whether this is a good idea – but I think we should notice that obviously a lot of people have found this very meaningful, even if, perhaps especially if, they do not have the time or even the inclination to go to church on a busy workday. 

Two.  One of the objects of the little jokes we make when we are being more religious than God – that’s one of the things that Jesus in the Gospel today means by “hypocrites” -- is about “Christmas-and-Easter Christians.”  I think these jokes represent a failure of charity.  But one of the things we may not notice is that there are many people who don’t come to church very often, even on Christmas and Easter, but who do often show up on Ash Wednesday.  Perhaps you are one such; if so, welcome and we are glad you are here today.  You are on to something.

Three.  Although we have been offering the Ash Wednesday Liturgy for a long time now quite widely in the Episcopal Church – especially since the no-longer-so-new revision of the Prayer Book in the mid-70s (though many of us had been doing it long before) there still sticks in our mind – each year including this year – that we are about to do something which Jesus in today’s Gospel reading seems to be explicitly telling us not to do, namely disfiguring our faces so as to show others that we are fasting.  Yes, there really is a disconnect here, and I’d be happy to discuss this with you at greater length than you would probably like; but that was another Ash Wednesday homily in another year!

So what is it about this “ashes” business that grabs us, even against our first instincts?  And in a way that seems to go beyond our usual “churchy” stuff, as “Ashes To Go” witnesses. 

Something about all this touches us very deeply, even though – or maybe precisely because – this whole “ashes” thing is so radically counter-cultural.  In a couple of minutes we will explicitly name what this is about:  mortality and penitence.  This is not “politically correct” in our modern culture.  We are in deep denial about death and sin.  In our society we really don’t want to talk, we refuse to talk, about sin.  And yet deep in our hearts we know that this is a reality of our lives.  We are sinners, and we are mortal

Sin is not just violation of God’s Laws, a “breaking of the rules.”  Sin basically is about the choice of our own short-term gratification at the cost of the long-term destruction of ourselves, our neighbors, and our world.  It leads to eternal death, not simply as a punishment but as an inexorable consequence.  And God does not will our self-destruction.

Ash Wednesday, and the season of Lent which this day begins, confronts us with our need to deal with these realities:  sin and death.  As we must at all times and in all seasons, but perhaps with special focus in Lent, we examine ourselves, our choices, our values, our lives, in the light of God’s will and call to live in God’s kingdom of love and justice.  We deepen our prayer, our meditation, our reading of the Scriptures.  And then we seek through God’s gracious gift to change our minds and hearts (that’s what “repentance” means), so that with Christ and in Christ we may be raised to eternal life.

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