A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 18, 2015 (Ash Wednesday)
The evening of my very first Ash Wednesday as a priest, as I was driving back from Old St. Paul’s in downtown Baltimore to our little red brick rowhouse on Keswick Road, I remember having one predominant thought. It had been a long day with four very well attended services including a huge one at St. Paul’s School for Girls, a private school the parish had founded a few generations ago. Ash Wednesday is always a full day at major downtown churches as office workers come streaming in for services throughout the day.
At first my one thought didn’t seem particularly profound or theological in nature. It wasn’t a reflection on repentance or the sinful nature of humanity. My thought was this: “I have never in my life physically touched so many people in a single day.” And I probably still haven’t.
I think Ash Wednesday, even with lots of snow on the ground and in the middle of school vacation week, is still the one day in the year that I touch the most number of people. I’m not generally such a touchy feely kind of guy.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the priest says as the sign of the cross is traced with a thumb dipped in ashes. At some level it’s odd that the one day in the year that clergy physically touch the most people, the message to them is that they will one day die. That was also part of my thought process after that first Ash Wednesday. That I had just told a whole bunch of people, including hundreds of young students, that they would die and that their bodies would return to the dust from whence it came.
But the thing about the Christian faith is that you can’t talk about death without also, literally in the same breath, talking about Resurrection. Ashes aren’t just flung at you. They are very intentionally made into the sign of the cross. The cross, that implement of torture and death that has been transformed by Jesus into an instrument of Resurrection and life.
And Ash Wednesday is not the only time in your life when you have a cross traced upon your forehead. At your baptism the sign of the cross was also made as you were “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Indelibly marked as Christ’s own. Not temporarily or for a limited time only but irrevocably and forever.
But this day reminds us of the stark reality of our lives — that we will die. A time will come in the not too distant future when we will no longer be living, breathing partakers of this mortal life. We are all marked for death. And as much as we seek to deny it the rest of the year, on Ash Wednesday we cannot deny death — that message is literally in and on our faces as we come face-to-face with the fleeting nature of humanity. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The good news is that even on Ash Wednesday there is hope. The ashes are the start of our Lenten journey, but not its end. Because even as we begin this Lenten season 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 and be drawn into the glorious light of Easter.
But not yet. Because in order to rise, we must first die. Just as at baptism we die to the old life of sin and death, before we experience the joy of Resurrection, we walk this Lenten path. We strip away all the clutter of our lives and return to the basics of our relationship with Jesus. It’s not easy, of course. It takes the hard work of self-examination leading to true repentance and amendment of life. But Ash Wednesday is the window into the season of Lent; a season that is not all doom and gloom but rather a wilderness experience of relationship with the living God who invites us into an ever-deepening encounter.
And so the ashes, this very tangible and visceral 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, yes, but also for new life in the risen Christ.
And it all begins with a physical touch. An incarnational moment that stands as an outward and visible sign of Jesus’ love for you. A love that transcends everything even, and most especially, death.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck