A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on February 25, 2004.
Based on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (Ash Wednesday, Year C).
You will soon become a marked man. Or a marked woman. The ashes imposed this day mark us. They set us apart. They give us identity. They make clear to whom we belong. For the ashes we are about to receive are the mark of God. We belong to God. And today we are marked.
To be marked by God with the cross of Christ means different things at different times. Today, we are marked for death. The stark reality of our lives as God’s creatures is that we will die. A time will come in the not too distant future when we will no longer be living, breathing members of this mortal life. We are marked for death. And as much as we seek to deny it the rest of the year, on Ash Wednesday we cannot deny death. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of our own mortality and on this day we come face-to-face with the fleeting nature of humanity.
But the good news is that even on Ash Wednesday there is hope. Ash Wednesday is not the end of the story. The ashes are the start of this Lenten journey, but not its end. Because even as we begin this Lenten season of preparation and self-denial, there is hope. Through the promise of Christ’s resurrection, we will indeed rise out of the ashes. We will rise out of the ashes of Ash Wednesday. But in order to rise, we must first die. And so the ashes, this very tangible evidence of our own mortality, draw us into the impending death of Jesus Christ. But through these ashes we are also drawn into the impending resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, new life to new life. It’s all part of our inheritance as people of faith. These ashes mark us for death but they also mark us for resurrection. We are marked for death but also for new life. We are marked for death but also for glory.
In time, the cross of ashes you receive upon your forehead will disappear. It will be removed intentionally or inadvertently. In time it will fade and be forgotten. But Jesus reminds us that to walk with Christ is to remember that the mark upon our forehead is indelible. We are marked for life. At baptism the sign of the cross is placed upon our foreheads, as a symbol that we are marked as Christ’s own forever. These ashes too are a symbol that we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Marked to die, marked to take leave of this mortal life, but also marked to dwell with Christ forever in his eternal kingdom. Which is why, as Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians, we are dying, yet alive. We are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
In our gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus warns us against practicing our piety before others. This is difficult to do when you’re walking around with ashes on your forehead. But this charge is really about examining the intentions of our hearts. Why are we here? Why do we consider ourselves Christians? What can we do to better serve God and one another? These are the questions of self-examination that mark this season of preparation.
On this first day of Lent we are made vulnerable, we are reminded that a clandestine faith is not a faith fully lived. We are marked outwardly and inwardly. On Ash Wednesday, our faith literally cannot be hidden. May we this Lent strive to live up to the mark that begins the season. May we be marked not only upon our foreheads but also upon our hearts.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004