Ash Wednesday

Burning the ashes at All Souls on Shrove Tuesday

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2010. The lectionary readings are Joel 2:1-2,12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Psalm 103 or 103:8-14, and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.

Though I’m not sure I would have planned it this way, having the snow still cover the ground on Ash Wednesday is a nice symbol. Last night when we burned last year’s palms to make ashes, we placed our burning bowl in the snow. The contrasts were wonderful. First there was the contrast of the bright red and orange flames against the white snow, and then as the flames died out over time, there was the blackish gray ash against the white snow. Some of the ash drifted or blew out of the pot and so, when the flame had died down, there were a few ashes scattered on the snow, making it look dirty. My first impulse was to get some fresh snow from somewhere else and cover it up, make it all white again, “pretty it up” again. And then I thought about what a perfect symbol that was for today— ashes against snow.

The snow freshens and seems to clean. And as it melts there is water.

Water is at a premium. Economists and war experts believe that the next great wars will be fought over water. We are careful with our filtered or bottled water, because we live in dry times.

Dust and ashes are good symbols for our time. Dust and ashes remind us that we are connected to the earth. We are more alike one another than we are different. Dust and ashes remind us of our beginning and they remind us of the way we will end.

Ancient believers put ashes on their heads when they were grieving or when they asked God to forgive them. And so we do the same thing. We use this day and the season ahead to do some spring cleaning of the soul, to get rid of what needs to go. We clean out, so there might be room for the new.

Spiritual disciplines can be a way of spring cleaning. Fasting, prayer, almsgiving, works of charity, works of mercy—all of these can help bring our lives back into balance. They can add moisture to desert lives. They can wash us with living water. Water like the water that washed us at baptism. Water like the water that will, with Christ, baptize us into eternal life.

The dust and ashes remind us of the way things end—in burning, in disintegration, in death. But they also remind us of that early day talked about in the Book Genesis. God breathes new life into the dust. God breathed new life into the dust and made Adam and Eve. God breathed new life in front of Ezekiel and made dead bones dance for joy with new life. God breathed new life into this chosen people again and again. And God breathed new life into the dead body of Jesus, making him to rise and ascend and rule and live for ever and ever.

The Gospel reminds us that we are not to be spiritual show-offs. There is no competition for holiness. But we are to be open, to be honest with God about our lives, so that God can come into and fill us with new life.

The snow comes and cleanses. It’s melting gives water. And so, may our dry lives be quenched. May our hearts be changed. May our tongues taste Living Water. May God breathe new life into the dusty and dead places in our lives.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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