(I wanted to add, but didn’t, “All we are is dust in the wind, dude.”) The rest, after the jump.
Lent is here. Fasting, Almsgiving, Prayer. Extra church services. As we get closer to Easter, lots of extra church services. Today, it all dramatically begins. The alle- well, that word – is gone. The Gloria in Excelsis, gone. Extra prayers. The ashes. Black paraments. Extended Confession and Absolution. No music. Any rejoicing is very muted. A sermon on penitence. And that phrase uttered over and over, “From dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” It’s Ash Wednesday, all right. Get this one behind us, so we can at least return to some sort of normalcy.
We don’t want to live in an Ash Wednesday sort of world. This is a day of judgment for sin. To live in Ash Wednesday is to live in the graveyard. This is a day of death. We spend so much of our lives ignoring, delaying, denying death, that a day like today comes and we say, “Ugh” That again? Didn’t we just do that last year? Do we have to do it again this year?
We live in a culture that, at the same time, glamorizes and ignores death. On the one hand, you have the shoot-em-up movies, the zombie apocalypse, the horror slasher films. You have the culture of death at the beginning and end of life. On the other hand, we don’t even like to say died. “Passed. Is gone. Departed. Gone Home. A better place.” As if we can hide the horror behind fancy language. We don’t even usually see death. The hospital takes the body away, the funeral home processes death so that what we see is artificial. Death, but prettied up death. Death that has been covered with makeup, and jewelry, and fine clothing, and perfumes. Death that has been slowed just enough to make it through the viewing and burial before decay sets in.
That’s the American way of death. We send flowers, cry tears, but never face death in its grim horror. On Ash Wednesday, it doesn’t matter how pretty we make death. Because today, the ashes come out. The decay is put on our foreheads. And we say, “Yes. I am dying. I belong to Death Hell and the Devil because of my sins.”
The Gospel reading couldn’t be clearer. Wash your face, don’t disfigure it. And yet year after year the church seems to ignore this advice, and puts on the ashes. Marks us with the cross. We are marked with a cross in baptism – but that one is only visible to the eyes of faith. Now, we parade that cross before the world, in seeming defiance of our Lord’s command.
Who are we fooling? Make all the gruesome crosses we want, it doesn’t change our fate. Is this a good thing we do? Coming here to disfigure our faces? Or not. Like all things in the church, we say a person is free to do or not to do it. Unlike Communion or Baptism or Absolution, which we also don’t force on people, here there is no “Do this” from Jesus. Baptism works forgiveness of sins, Absolution forgives sins in heaven as if Christ our Dear Lord dealt with us himself. The Sacrament of the Altar gives forgiveness, life and salvation. They do something, and yet we don’t force people. What do ashes do? Especially so late in the day when we can’t show them off to our coworkers and friends?
They are a reminder. They don’t do anything in themselves. Some don’t even get them. That’s fine. No judgment as to whether you come up and get them or don’t. The judgment is in the words. You hear them. You see the ashes, regardless. Dust. From dust. To dust. Spoken over and over. You don’t get the ashes to disfigure your face. You get them to remind you of where you are headed, because of you. Because of your sin.
And even those who don’t get them are reminded. Tonight, wash them off. Don’t disfigure faces after today. This little ritual is a stand-in for donning the sack-cloth, and sitting in the ashes. It reminds us of where we should be this day. A simple thing. A small ritual. One day, and then we do not gripe about all the church we have to go to. We do not complain about the penitential nature of the season. We do not whine about the joyful parts of the service going away. After today, we wash our faces, we go joyfully about our work in this world, and we go joyfully about our penitence. But we know. Today we are reminded. Dust.
All of our accomplishments. Dust. All of our faithfulness. Dust. All of our efforts for God. Dust. The works we do, the great things we achieve, the faithfulness that draws us here to have, or not to have, that cross drawn on our brow, the faithfulness that brings us here for six Wednesdays, for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, for Easter Sunrise, for all the Sundays and Wednesdays, the faithfulness that draws us to make the soup and the pie to feed our hungry brothers and sisters, to provide comfort in times of loss, to help our neighbor in need, to show love to those around us, to be the sort of people that Jesus wants us to be. You pile it all up in one place, and it is nothing more than a few grains of dust blown by the wind to oblivion.
We so very want it to mean something. We want to contribute something, to earn something, to account for something. But the truth is, only Jesus’ righteousness can do that. Only his sacrifice can redeem you. Only his Word can give forgiveness.
Even the repentance you feel today, the sorrow over your sin that you work so hard to cultivate, gets you nothing. Sorry tonight, back to the sin in the morning. That’s how we are. We have such good intentions. Even as those called out of the World as Christ’s holy people. But we are weak. We stumble and fall. And then, when Christ picks us up, we stumble and fall again. How can we be making progress toward our goal, when the same sins trip us up every time?
We repent. We want to amend our sinful lives. We really mean it this time. “Go and sin no more” says Jesus. If only it were that easy. The sin doesn’t quit. The corruption of our human nature continues to wreak its havoc on our souls, and in our lives.
That’s why we need something more than us. Today we totally discount any effort of our own. Dust and ashes. That’s all it is. Not disfiguring faces, admitting the truth for once.
Salvation does not come from your work. It’s Jesus. Jesus always and only. The black paraments remind us of our sin. The ashes etched on the forehead remind us of the death we so richly deserve. But the confession is there not so we can be proud of how sorry we are about our sin. It exists so you can hear that word of Christ. “Your sins, which are many, are forgiven you.” The black paraments tonight testify to our sin. But under that black cloth are the holy vessels. The Word of Christ spoken, the body and blood present. And that mercy is greater than your sin. His life is more powerful than your death. His victory covers over your defeat.
Tonight, we repent in sackcloth and ashes. Not because they do anything for us in themselves, but because they remind you that your only hope is Jesus. He is the one to undo the curse by becoming the curse for you. He undoes death by going through death for you. He gives the benefits of that death in the water, in the word spoken, in the body and blood.
All your righteousness has accomplished exactly nothing. Our good works, we are told, are like filthy bloody rags. But that’s not the end of the story. It can not be. Because Christ is the end of the story. He IS the story. That is why we gather together for the extra time of prayer and the word. To hear of Christ. We have meals to feed us so we can attend to Christ. We have the fellowship of the church so we can gather around Christ. We come not to celebrate our righteousness, but his. Not our good works but his merit. We come together so that you can receive from him the life he gives you. The life he sacrificed for you, the life he now has been given by His Father in His resurrection. The life he is.
That’s what today is about. Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus, can my heartfelt longing still.