These reflections were given as a homily at the Ash Wednesday service for the Lordsbridge churches hosted by St Mary’s Hardwick in 2019
What is Ash Wednesday for? Here are three answers to that question any one of which, or all three, you might like to ponder –
Firstly, on Ash Wednesday we remember that we are mortal, we are not God. A little later I will mark a cross of ash on some or all of your foreheads with these words: “From dust you come and to dust you will return”. Doing so acknowledges that, as mortals, we are not the subject, not the author of our lives. There are those who believe that the ultimate human delusion is that we can control our lives and what happens within them. Some would call this the ultimate deceit of the Evil One: to believe that we are the subject of our relationship with God, and that we grant him a bit of access to our lives now and again. This denies entirely the truth about God, that God is God of all things. That is the Creator and Giver of Life. Whereas we are merely mortal creatures.
If this is true, then what is left for us? What is left is that we are loved. That God as the subject, as the prime mover in our relationship with him, offers us the gift of his love, the gift of his unconditional positive regard, the gift of his life-giving presence. Our role in this relationship is therefore to be an ongoing and active recipient of these gifts for the whole of our mortal lives. Here is hope.
Secondly, on Ash Wednesday we remember own potential for hurting people, for lacking in generosity and kindness, for being centred on ourselves and our own needs – that is our potential, in the language of faith, for sinfulness. But though the ash on your forehead is reminder of that symbolic dust from which we come and to which we will return, it is also an ancient symbol of lament followed by repentance, the ash of the phrase ‘sack cloth and ashes’. It symbolises sadness for the past and the desire to change. The words which accompany it go on: Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. Here is also hope.
Thirdly, on Ash Wednesday, we lift our eyes from ourselves and widen our lament as we remember the brokenness of all things. That sin is not just a list of actions we regret but that sinfulness is in the fault lines, the cracks across the whole of humanity life and the life of nature. In our lament, we long for the whole of humanity to come to its senses and change. We, as representative members of the human race, ask God’s forgiveness for the mess we have collectively made and are still making of human life, recognising too our culpability with at least some of it.
And we also remember that God loved this beautiful, fallen, broken, incomplete and suffering world in such a way that God came here, in Jesus, one time for all time, to change the dynamic from one of entropy, where everything is headed towards chaos and death, to something else. Instead, Jesus is God-alongside-us in the mess and the chaos, the accompanying God who walks with us, especially through the mystery of letting go and receiving, of loss and renewal, of surrender and receptivity, death and resurrection. And walking with him we discover that death is not the opposite of life, it is merely a transitioning that takes trust every time we walk through it. That is why we do not only mark our foreheads with ash on this day each year, we do not only express our sense of penitence, and mortality and lament. We also take those things and hold them within the story of God’s love, expressed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we tell that story as we celebrate and share the eucharist. Here again is hope.
And so begins our observance of Lent.