Feburary 21 Ash Wednesday 2007
February 21, 2007
Ash Wednesday Year C
The genius of Ash Wednesday is that we can’t make something grand and hopeful unless we start with some ashes. We have to work with some ashes --- all that has gone before us in life. But nature uses ashes to restore soil. Repentance is the spiritual quality that ashes represent. When we confess to God that we are not all we ought to be, we are laying the bed of ashes in which our souls can grow.
“Hope in Ashes”
I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I tell you that it’s exciting to preach on Christmas and Easter. You don’t have to be a priest or a pastor to sense that Christmas and Easter are waiting for. Of course they’re also very demanding, because one wants so much for all the worshipers to be blessed. But it’s wonderful to see the increased attendance and to feel the unique excitement each of these days brings.
But I have to confess that not every holy day carries the same kind of natural excitement. Ash Wednesday, for example!
The basic theme of Ash Wednesday is repentance. This day reminds us that we are sinners who need to repent of our sins. This is something of a downer for most folks, especially in our culture where we’re constantly encouraged to think well of ourselves. Urging people to come to a special service where they’re asked to think badly of themselves, and then come forward to be daubed with a smear of ashes --- well, as they say in the advertising business, that’s a hard sell.
Nevertheless, something in me is glad about this service. Let me tell you why.
The Prophet Joel
My enthusiasm begins with our Ash Wednesday reading from the Old Testament prophet, Joel. Joel prophesied in a difficult time. Most of us know something about times, either through our own experience or through what we hear on the news. But Joel’s story is one we can hardly imagine. His land – the land of the people to whom he preached – had been devastated by a plague of locusts. In a sense, a locust invasion was like a Katrina or any overpowering flood, except that it ws inflicted by living creatures, millions upon millions of them. These insects marched like an army, wiping out everything before them. When you saw them coming, your only hope was to get inside, out of their way, as they ate everything: crops, weeds, the leaves on the trees, sometimes the trees themselves. They left behind scorched earth, shattered dreams, and ashes.
What do you preach about at such a time? The prophet Joel told it like it was. His words weren’t gentle, and at first they weren’t very comforting. He was smart enough not to say routine, superficial thing. He knew better than to clap folks on the shoulder and say cheerfully, “Hey, look on the bright side. You still have your appetite.”
No. The prophet Joel said, “Blow the trumpet! This is a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Believe me, I am an optimist, and I believe in emphasizing the positive. But one has to begin with an honest appraisal of how things really are. Don’t tell me to dance when I’ve just broken my hip; give me the facts, and let me proceed from there. And for Joel’s people, the situation was bad. The prophet said that it looked like the Garden of Eden before these locusts came, but now like “desolate wilderness.”
This is “terrible indeed,” he said. “Who can endure it?”
And then Joel spoke the hopeful word, a hope in the midst of the ashes. “Yet even now,” the prophet said, even now the Lord has a word for you. God doesn’t go silent in the time of need. Sometimes our hearing gets bad when we’re in trouble, but God doesn’t stop speaking. Don’t stop listening for God when you’re in trouble and don’t ever believe that God has stopped speaking. Turn up your spiritual preceptors, and see what God has to say; because “even now,” even in the worst time, the Lord has a word for us.
For Joel and for his generation, the word was this: Return to the Lord “with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” And Joel made this appeal to everybody: the aged and the children and even the nursing infant, the bridegroom and the bride, the priest and the ministers of the Lord. Everyone. Everyone should return to the Lord, with weeping and mourning.
Most of us have a hard time understanding this kind of language. We aren’t inclined toward “weeping and mourning.” And especially not such carryings - on regarding our sins. Most of the time, we don’t really feel that bad about the things we’ve done. We look at the headlines of the day and we see why some people should mourn and weep over their conduct, but not people like us. That’s why we have a hard time with Ash Wednesday. Why all this ritual of repentance, this spreading of ashes, as if someone had died?
Let me try to explain, beginning with Joel. The people of Joel’s time – that is, the people of the Old Testament – had a far greater sense of community responsibility than we do. They saw themselves as part of the nation of Judah or Israel, and if the nation was going wrong, they felt responsible for it. We aren’t inclined to see it that way. Sometimes after watching the evening news or reading the newspaper we grumble about what’s wrong with our country, but we don’t think of ourselves as being at fault. It’s those folks in Washington, or at the State Capitol, or the United Nations.
But biblical people didn’t see it that way. They saw us all bound up together in responsibly and sin. So when there was wickedness in the capitol, at Jerusalem, they saw it not as the king’s problem or the government’s problem, but as their problem.
So here’s a question Joel would ask us on this Ash Wednesday. What is our responsibility for the mess in the world? In our country, our state, our city, our school district --- or for that matter, our church? We want to answer, “I just live here and pay taxes,” but that’s not good enough. When you belong to the human race, you can’t squeeze out of the predicament that simply. The biblical writers keep reminding us that we’re all in this together and that we can’t cut ourselves off from the rest of the human race as if it were their ball game and not ours, too.
I don’t cast a vote in Congress, but I can cast a vote for those who want to go to Congress. Sometimes I can even influence their vote, by a letter or an e-mail. And always, always, always I can pray for Congress, for the president, for those who make up the reports each day that guide our officials in their decisions. I can pray for all those rather faceless and nameless people who may well tilt the balance of great decisions.
Joel was telling his people that since they were Israelites, they should repent for the state of the nation. They couldn’t, so to speak, say that the president or Congress or the Supreme Court ought to repent; that’s really too easy. We must repent. We must ask God what we have left undone, or where our influence has been bad, ineffective or simply absent.
And remember what Joel said? Nobody is exempt:
Old folks aren’t nor children, nor babies; not the bride and the bridegroom or the priests and religious leaders; we’re all called to repentance.
And that brings us back to this business of ashes and repentance. As I said earlier, that’s a bit of a downer. The ashes that are the primary symbol of this day don’t naturally appeal to us. When we come to a baptism, water is the primary symbol; that speaks of cleanliness, and we like that. When we come to Holy Communion, the bread and the cup are the symbols, and they speak of nourishment and refreshing; we like that. But on Ash Wednesday, ashes are the symbol and they speak of loss. We have a common phrase in our speech: “burned out.” Bless you, this is what ashes symbolize – being all “burned out.” So who wants to celebrate ashes?
Well, that’s the genius of this day. Because in truth we can’t make something grand and hopeful unless we start with some ashes. You see, we don’t live in the Garden of Eden, where everything is perfect; we live in 2007; and this means that we have to work with some ashes – like 2006, 2005, and what we did for good or for ill in those years; and more than that, for what all the generations have done before us.
But in the world of nature, ashes are among the best, natural fertilizers. Nature uses ashes to restore the soil and to increase its quality and productivity. Repentance is the spiritual quality that ashes represent. When we come to the altar of faith on this holy day and confess to God that we are not all we ought to be, we are laying the bed of ashes in which our souls can grown. So we take ashes – to our foreheads and to our souls. We repent.
In less than two months we will celebrate Easter, the grandest day in the Christian year.
But today, Ash Wednesday is where Easter begins. For you and for me, Easter begins with the ashes of repentance, out of which the glorious flower of God’s victory can grow. Amen.