The Sign of Ashes

Ash Wednesday,  February 18, 2015

There is a custom that has grown up in recent years at some of the cathedrals and larger urban churches, that of taking the Ash Wednesday ashes out into the streets of the city. People go out in pairs, perhaps a priest and a server, vested, and fan out into the blocks surrounding the church.  This probably works better in places where the streets are not clogged with snow. And they offer the sign of the ashes to passers-by on the busy city streets, to anyone who wants it.  It sounds crazy, like the kind of thing that would never work.  And indeed, no doubt many shake their heads, or hurry away from these crazy people with complete incomprehension. And yet, apparently, quite a few people – a surprising number – take up the offer: they stop, receive the sign, give a quick glance with gratitude or even with tears in their eyes, and go their way. What’s that about?

I read an account of one of these street ashings, where the person approached a young woman with a baby carriage. She asked for ashes for herself and her baby. He leaned over the carriage, marked the baby’s forehead with ashes, and repeated those ancient words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And the woman thanked him. The person telling the story could not help being astounded. “I just told that woman that her baby was going to die – and she thanked me!” What is that about, indeed?

Our Ash Wednesday rite is a profoundly counter-cultural practice.  Because of course we live in a society that does not want to talk about death. None of us likes to talk about it, it’s a difficult conversation to have with anyone.  So much easier to turn away with a quick “I’m sure you’ll be fine”.  Meanwhile, everything in our popular culture – our movies, our advertising – conspire to tell us “You’re young, you’re beautiful, you’ll live forever.”  I think that’s the first thing people appreciate about the sign of the ashes, its honesty. In the midst of so many messages that just flatter and lie to us – and not just advertising and our politicians, but a lot of religion too – this is an impressively honest word. Finally the church is giving it to us straight, finally it’s telling it like it is. An honest word may not be comfortable, but it can be helpful.

We tend to live our lives as though we will just keep on going forever.  I suspect that that’s a natural assumption every young person has. And, as I said, so many messages in our culture tend to conspire to keep us believing that. It is not until we begin to feel the wear in our bodies, or until an early crisis wakes us up, that we begin to realize that we’re not here forever.  That realization is never easy, and it’s hard for us to hold onto; but it also can bring wisdom with it as well. How often have we heard it said, by people who perhaps have faced a threatening illness, that they no longer take each day for granted, but live it fully, consciously, gratefully. . .

Tonight we receive the sign of ashes on our foreheads, as a very physical and intimate reminder of that truth: that we are mortal, that we will return to the dust.  We will wipe these ashes off, perhaps at the end of the service, at the latest when we wash to go to bed tonight. But really, they are not just meant for tonight. The whole season of Lent is in fact the invitation to live with the awareness of this black cross on our foreheads, even if no one else can see it. It is the invitation to look at our lives, at every aspect of how we spend our time and how we relate to others, in light of the truth that we are but dust. Every morning and every night we should repeat these words to ourselves –  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – to see how our life measures up to this truth.

What does it do to us, to live with the daily reminder of our mortality? Well, I’m sure it calls forth a lot of feelings within us; but in the context of Lent, three things come to mind.

First of all, penitence.  When we hold up “remember you are dust” alongside our lives, it kind of puts things into perspective.  All that is superficial, or selfish, or petty suddenly shows up for what it is.  In a few minutes we will be saying together an extended confession:

•    “We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives” – when we hold that up against our mortality, our behaviour seems petty.
•    “Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people” – remember that you are dust.
•    “Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves.”
•    “Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work.”
•    Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us.” – the sign of ashes puts things into perspective.

The penitential aspect of Lent is not a matter of beating ourselves up for the sake of beating ourselves up. It is the natural effect of seeing our lives in perspective, seeing them in light of the truth of our own mortality.

Secondly, gratitude.  Making every day count. When we stop living the fantasy of a life of illusion, we learn again to be truly grateful for our lives: not as something we can take for granted, but the gift of a loving God.

Thirdly, we live this truth in hope. We remember that we are dust, and that to dust we shall return.  This is a fundamental truth of our lives.  But it is not the only truth, not the final truth.  That is that we are loved by God, by God who stands above life and death, and who has promised that death does not have the final word.

In about 6 weeks on Easter Sunday, I will again sign your foreheads with the sign of the cross.  This time not with ashes, but with the water of baptism, as a reminder of your baptism, a reminder that you have been claimed as Christ’s own forever.

That is then.  But in the meantime, we receive the cross of dust and ashes, the cross of our mortality.  We live with that truth for a few weeks, in hope of the resurrection, but mindful of the fact that we are dust, and that to dust we shall return.  We live with that truth, to learn its wisdom, to let it change our lives, before we turn to that other mystery of Christ’s victory over death.