This is Where We Begin (Ash Wednesday)
Today we begin with sin and death.
Now that’s not a very popular opening line is it? I can imagine that half of our online worshippers just closed their screens or switched over to Netflix. But for those of you that are here in person, there is no escape.
Today, on this Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, we begin with sin and death.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Sin and death. Two things that we don’t like to talk about. Two words that we don’t like to speak. We use all sorts of euphemisms to avoid the word death. We say that people pass away, that they are no longer with us, that they are deceased. And the word sin, well the word doesn’t even exist any longer as part of our normal vocabulary, it’s not a word to be used in polite conversation. Sin and death are like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books –that which must not be named. And yet, named or not, they have a power over us. They make us who we are – sin and death are an essential and inevitable reality of human existence. Sometimes we think of them as the enemy.
And so our posture towards sin and death, the questions we ask about them, our understandings and reflections, really matters and has the power to shape our lives, not just our eternal lives but our life together, here and now.
This season of Lent which we begin this evening is a long season of preparation for Good Friday and Easter, for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a time to take stock, a time for self-reflection, a time of renewed spiritual practice, a time, as the reading from Joel urges us, to return to God.
We begin with Ash Wednesday. What we do this evening is unusual to say the least. We will have a long litany of penitence in which we reflect on sin, individual, communal and systemic, and then Frank and I will smudge ashes on your foreheads and pronounce these haunting words.
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday is a day of utter honesty. This is where we begin.
What is your posture towards death? You are dust and to dust you shall return. Is that all there is? What, if anything, are you willing to die for? Is death to be avoided at all costs? Do you have hope in the face of death? How do you understand that hope?
We won’t answer these questions tonight. They’re big questions, and we have forty days to reflect on them. But recognize that the way we answer these questions, our posture towards death, has the power to shape our lives and the lives of those around us.
What is your posture towards sin? We know it exists, just look at the world, look at our relationships, look within our own hearts. What is God’s posture towards sin? Is it one of judgment and punishment, or one of mercy, compassion and forgiveness? Why does that matter? Well it matters because it may well have eternal consequences, but it also matters because it will inform and shape our own posture towards sin, our own and that of others. When we screw up, when we confront our own brokenness, is our posture towards ourselves one of judgment and shame or one of mercy, compassion and forgiveness? When someone harms us or those that we love, do we respond with judgment and retaliation or with mercy, compassion and forgiveness? Just as our posture towards death has the power to shape our lives, our posture towards sin also has the power to shape our lives and the lives of those around us, indeed the power to shape our world.
And without some sort of honest reflection on sin and death, we will miss the power of Easter when we get there.
A number of years ago the sociologist Reginald Bibby did a survey of Canadian adults in which he compared the values of those who identified as Christian and those who did not. For the most part Christians and non-Christians in Canada share the same values. We all value honesty. We all value kindness. But there were two areas in which there was indeed a difference between those who identified as Christian and those who did not. The first was that to a much greater degree, Christians profess hope in the face of death. And the second was that Christians placed a higher value on forgiveness.
Are these differences well grounded? Do you have hope in the face of death? On what is that hope founded? Do you value forgiveness? Do you profess and practice and receive and accept forgiveness in the face of sin? Why, or why not? When and when not?
We are an Easter people. Our hope in the face of death is grounded in the power of the resurrection. We receive forgiveness of sin through the death of Jesus on the cross. In our eucharistic prayer this evening we will acknowledge that “by his death Jesus destroys the power of sin and death.”
These are great mysteries. The season of Lent points us squarely in the direction of these mysteries. But without some sort of honest reflection on the power of sin and death, we will be unprepared for the power of Easter when we get there.
So I invite you to join me in a time of preparation. Forty days of preparation in fact. A time for self-reflection and for learning and for asking those hard questions, a time to step back, if only a little, from the usual rhythms of our lives. Lent is a time to renew our relationship with God, as individuals and as a community. We are blessed to be the inheritors of a tradition which provides us with spiritual practices and disciplines to help us in our journey. We practice almsgiving, using the resources of which we are stewards to help those in need, in an intentional way, to disrupt our usual practice of putting ourselves first. We practice fasting, giving up those things that get in our way of spending time with God and that take us away from our relationships with each other. We practice prayer, in all of its wonderful diversity, as a way of bringing God into our awareness and our conversations. We will sing, we will journal, we will gather, we will worship, we will study, we will spend time in silence, we will ask questions, we will have conversations, we will go deep.
So that, by the time we get to mid-April, we will be ready to experience once again the power of Good Friday and Easter.
Homily: Ash Wednesday, February 22 2023, Trinity
Readings: Joel 2.1-2,12-17; Ps 103.8-18; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21