Happy Ash Wednesday, everyone. I know, it sounds weird right? I mean, we can say Merry Christmas and Happy Easter, and people have gotten away with saying Happy Reformation Day and Happy Epiphany and even Happy Pentecost day, but Happy Ash Wednesday? There’s only two reasons to ever say that: when you’re making a joke or trying to figure a way of starting an Ash Wednesday sermon. Other than that, there is no reason to wish that upon anyone at all.
And why not? I mean Ash Wednesday is, aside from Good Friday, Christmas Eve, and most Christmas Days, the most popular midweek service we have. That isn’t bad, that makes it the 4th most popular, and you and I know 4th place isn’t all that bad. It’s 4th out of 4, but hey, at least we still have a service, not like the others that have gone to the wayside like the Easter Vigil, Maundy Thursday, and any kind of anything that doesn’t start at 10am Sunday morning.
Still, it seems like Ash Wednesday is on its way out as well, as year after year attendance seems to wane. Year after year Ash Wednesday falls more and more off our collective radars. Year after year it gets harder and harder on Ash Wednesday to come up with an original sermon.
And really, I’m kind of surprised that Ash Wednesday has lasted as long as it has in this day and age. In this day and age of putting your best foot forward, of dressing up your image so you always look good for the multitude of selfies posted on your social media accounts, of the façade of being happy like all the time, a day like Ash Wednesday would seem so counter intuitive to our feel-good-to-be-good mentality. So I guess what I’m saying is that I understand why today isn’t all that popular. Why today only brought out like __ of you here. Why today, a day of humility and dare I even say humiliation, a day of remembrance of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, a day that our brokenness is brought out into the light, that people would rather just stay home, keep their foreheads clean, and do absolutely anything but be in church on a humpday evening.
Truth be told if I weren’t paid to be here, I don’t know if I would be myself.
But what a shame that would be. What a shame that is. What a shame that this day of remembrance that we are dust and to dust we shall return be lost in a long line of meaningful traditions that help us in our faith and spirituality. Because that is exactly what this day does, that is what it is designed for, that is how this day works in the great grand scheme of the liturgical calendar.
We do know what I mean when I say “liturgical calendar,” right? I refer to it often on Sundays. It is the calendar that moves us through the story of Jesus on earth and brings us a glimpse of who he is and what he teaches. It starts with Advent and the hope of the coming Messiah, Immanuel, God with us. Then Christmas as the celebration of his arrival. And Epiphany and the season after it has us discovering this person of Jesus. And now in Lent, we look at why we even need a Saviour to begin with.
Us? A Saviour? From what?
Like I said, in this day and age in the West at least we tend to put our best foot forward. We like to appear strong and with it and together. We pad our resumes to look like we are the perfect candidates and we pad our stories to our friends either online or in person in attempts to make them jealous of how great and wonderful our perfect lives are. We don’t need a Saviour. We just need ourselves, our talents, our strengths, our power of will. Because if we admit that we need someone else to save us? Then well that someone else would get the credit, wouldn’t they? And what is the point of anything if you don’t get the credit for it?
Well, that is what Jesus was talking about in today’s gospel lesson. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus says, “for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” See we spend so much time trying to impress others, with our possessions, with our experiences, with our popularity, that we miss the point of God’s kingdom, community, and church. We miss the point of the work that Jesus did on the cross. We miss the point of the liturgical calendar and the different seasons and of course the point of today, Ash Wednesday.
Why? Because if we aren’t from time to time reminded that we are actually all equally sinful and depraved and in need of that Saviour, then we could actually believe that we can be better than our neighbours. If we don’t, from time to time, be humbled by the brokenness and pain of life, then we cannot feel the healing power of God’s grace and mercy. If we, from time to time, aren’t reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we might lose sight of how we are identified, how we are loved, and how we actually can and do matter.
Because as we enter into Lent in the liturgical calendar, guess what comes next? As we spend the next 5 weeks focussing on our humility and brokenness, guess what happens immediately after that? As we navigate the next 40 some odd days in our respective wildernesses, face different questions of identity and purpose, and feel like we are put on the chopping block exposed to the world or at least to God, guess what is going to answer those questions, reveal to you a love and peace that surpasses understanding, and inevitably saves you from you?
In case you didn’t do the math in your head or just weren’t able to guess, I’m talking about Easter. See Lent comes right before Easter in our liturgical calendars, and for good reason. While Lent makes us humbly question our identities, our worthiness to be called children of God, and God’s ability to love even sinners like us, Easter comes and identifies us as God’s beloved, welcomes us into God’s kingdom, and lifts us up out of the brokenness to share in the unity and communion with God, the Spirit, and all the saints of all times and places.
And it begins today, tonight, here, now, with Ash Wednesday. Well, technically it started a few months ago with the 1st Sunday of Advent, but this time of brokenness and healing starts on Ash Wednesday. In a few moments we will be marked with the cross of Christ on our foreheads; we will be reminded of our mortality, our vulnerability, our finite nature; we will be granted hope, for in humility there is joy, in brokenness there is healing, in death there is life.
So yes, you are from dust and to dust you shall return, that much is true. But at the same time, you are created, wonderful and beautiful; you are loved, wholly and fully; and you are saved, graciously and freely; as we are made to become the righteousness of God. For as we enter into Lent, as we are reminded of these things that perhaps make us uncomfortable, as we are brought face to face with our demons and insecurities, as we might question our value and worth, may we look forward in that hope, that God will be faithful and just, and God’s promises of love and salvation bring us all together as the one holy and eternal, inviting and welcoming, healing and Spirit-led body of Christ.
So let us embrace Lent. Let us together hold fast to what Lent is for and how it might make us feel. Let us revel in the humility and brokenness that we might together know more fully God’s love and healing. Thanks be to God. Amen.