So. Why are we here? No, No. I don’t propose to answer the big existential question “why do we exist?” But rather why do we go to a place of worship on Ash Wednesday. If we were early Christians the answer would be easy. Christian converts in the first couple of hundred years of Christianity would begin their journey toward Baptism on this day. They would have forty days of prayer, fasting, and repentance, mirroring the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert preparing for His Ministry. On the great Vigil of Easter Saturday they would be baptized as Christians and would celebrate the rising of Christ from the tomb with the Eucharist. We no longer make people wait and prepare for baptism in that manner. And as for taking communion, all baptized Christians are welcome at most of the tables of various denominations today and any day.
So, why are we here? Why are we acknowledging that we are broken. And why are we having the ash from last years palms smeared on our foreheads?
Today as we begin a forty-day journey…We will reflect. We will be reassured that although we are broken, we are loved. And we will be penitent. We Anglicans (my own particular denomination) are a penitential people. Some might even accuse us of groveling in the sight of God. We humbly beseech God… “We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under His table”… “Thou O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders.” These are un-comfortable words. And doesn’t it get even worse during Lent? We are asked to prepare for the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ for the next forty-days by acknowledging that we are not perfect, doing some work and making some sacrifices. Sacrifices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Twenty-odd years ago I was the stage manager for Canadian comic coloratura soprano Mary Lou Fallis. She, her accompanist Bruce Ubakata, and myself were on tour in the great state of Kansas and were in the city of Salina on Ash Wednesday. We decided that we needed to attend an imposition of the ashes service and found ourselves at Christ Episcopal Cathedral that morning at a service presided over by the late Bishop John F. Ashby who preached a sermon that I have never forgotten.
The Bishop was decidedly of the fire and brimstone variety, “Lent is a time of sacrifice! It is about experiencing the suffering and sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ! I don’t hold,” he said, “with any of this eastern, pinko, liberal nonsense about Lent being a time for being a better person. Lent is not about ‘I’m going to call my mamma every week.’ It’s about giving things up. Me, I am giving up peanut butter for Lent. And for those of you who don’t think this is a sacrifice let me tell you I love peanut butter. I have been known to fly into a rage when there is no peanut butter in the house!”
As you can imagine, when the Bishop said, “eastern, pinko, liberal he looked directly at the three of us. I still shudder to think on it. But I do find that all these years later his sentiments still resonate with me. Can I just be nicer to my momma or do I have to give up chocolate-chip cookies?
I ask: Why be penitential, why sacrifice? Why do we even have this season of Lent, these forty days of self-denial? Why would we need to prepare ourselves for the triumph of Easter? The answer is so easy and so hard.
Christ offers Grace to us. It is crazy! We are offered something beyond price. We are redeemed from our transgressions by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. He came in total humility, and was born, and lived as us. He was tortured, reviled, and died horribly for us nailed to a tree. We are given this unreasonable gift of His Grace and love. And as unworthy of it as we are, all we have to do is accept it. We have to be open and humble and receptive. We stand at the base of a Niagara Falls of Grace and all we have is an eyedropper to collect it. This is why we have to prepare. This is why we repent, to make room in our hearts for this unreasonable abundance of love and forgiveness. We have to look around and see what we can empty out to catch this waterfall of Grace in.
For me, it is always pride and self-will that must be emptied out. And this, I think, is what repentance is for all of us. We recognize that we are not the centre of our own universe. That perhaps we could use a little help. And, this is where Bishop Ashby and I depart, I think that the empting out of pride and filling it with compassion is a penitential act. The “I will phone my mamma” is a recognition that love and service is beloved in Jesus eyes. When we look at the person that most that must ticks us off, this Lent, with compassion, this is an act of repentance. Repentance that we can only offer with the complete confidence that Grace is bursting into our lives.
We Pray. We ask for, and give thanks for, His presence and love in our lives. We crack open a Bible and read some scripture daily. This is an acknowledgement that we are part of a greater whole, part of a greater story. In humility we pray, we admit that we are broken, and are in need. We ask for and accept help. This is an act of love.
We fast. Bishop Ashby renounces peanut butter. I give up cookies (I have been known to fly into a rage when my son comes home and raids my secret stash of cookies)… How will you fast? What sacrifice will you make that you may keep in your heart to remind you of His sacrifice? This also is an act of love.
We give alms. A few coins in an outstretched “Micky D” cup. Money to ease suffering at home and abroad. We do service and give help to others. We give our compassion to those in need, especially those who most irritate us. This is perhaps our greatest act of penitence and love.
But we do it quietly. Matthew’s Gospel tells us today that we are not to make a big fuss over this. We are told not to sound a trumpet when we give alms, not to look for praise from others, but rather be assured that God sees all. Fast but don’t make a commotion about it. Don’t moan and whine over your sacrifice – which is something those who know me best been known to accuse me of during Lent when I am “Jonesing” for a sweet and moaning about my own martyrdom. Be quietly joyful. Be quietly penitential.
We don’t put on sackcloth and sit in a pile of ashes bewailing our lot. Rather we have a small amount of ash smeared on our foreheads. When Bishop Ashby imposed ashes on Mary-Lou, Bruce and me that Ash Wednesday he said, “Oh Man, Dust thou art!” and I am sure that when I get the ashes from last year’s palms imposed on my forehead I will hear similar but more inclusive words. But it is a sobering thought. “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” This must be a profoundly moving moment for the priest imposing the ashes. I have heard of a young minister, imposing the ashes for the first time on the head of his newborn daughter breaking down in tears with this reminder of our mortality and fragility.
We are so easily broken, and this season of penance and preparation for Christ’s Passion reminds us of this.
This is why we are here today, to remember.
We remember the strong, tough verdant fronds from Palm Sunday, carried in triumph. A year later dried and fragile. Burnt and returned to dust… Dust thou art.
Dust but loved. Full of sin and broken but still redeemed. Unworthy, but given unreasonable grace. We do small acts and make small sacrifices trusting not in our own worthiness but in Christ’s great love for us.
We show love and compassion.
We are penitent and grateful.
We deny ourselves small pleasures.
We fast, and we pray, and we give.
We become witnesses to Christ’s love for his people.
We recognize that we are broken, but that we are loved.
“The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: / a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.”