Ash Wednesday

There are a number of ways to think about Ash Wednesday.  So much of its meaning is part of the rich tradition of the church.  We will hear about that tradition in the Invitation to Holy Lent that follows my meditation. Lent the season of penitence and fasting, a season of preparing converts for baptism and a time, too, of separating out those who had committed notorious sins in order for them to find their way to reconciliation with the church. And, we will hear about the ashes.

 I grew up in a town back in the 1950s that was very much divided between Protestants and Roman Catholics so much so that Richardson Drug Store on the north corner of Hubbard Street and Main was the drug store of choice for Protestants and being an Episcopalian, that was the drug store my family frequented.  Snow’s Drug store was across the street on the south corner that that was the drug store of choice for Roman Catholics.

 Ash Wednesday was one of those religious days that also separated out one denomination from the other.  Children released from school at 11:30 came back after the lunch break with ashes smooched on their foreheads.  We children thought that was very exotic.  Our parents were more critical.

 I keep going back to that childhood memory each year when we read the Gospel that is appointed for Ash Wednesday.  You can’t help but notice how the word “secret” keeps repeating.  It sounds almost like a drum beat.  When you pray, do it in secret; when you fast, do it in secret; when you do good works, do them in secret—so that only your Father who is in Heaven will know what you are up to. Piety, to be true, is never to be put on display.

 So then, we come to this practice of ashes.  They are hardly secretive.  The minute you get up from the altar rail you are confronted by the person right next to you who is wearing ashes on their forehead.  This is hardly a secretive moment.  And, then there is this awkward thing about what do you do about the ashes when you go up for Communion or leave the church.  Such a fuss.

 All this gets me to thinking of another childhood scene although it is not my childhood but that of an unnamed little boy in a restaurant with his grandmother.  Perhaps you will recall Norman Rockwell’s painting –Saying Grace

 The elder lady’s head is bowed; we can’t see the boys face as his back is to us.  But the posture and the expressions on the faces of the two teenagers who are sharing the table with the praying duo are priceless—I should say amazed, even uncomfortable by what they are a part of—rather unwillingly.

 The scene invites us to consider our reactions to the prayerful grandmother, how would we feel if we were sharing the table with them?  It even begs the question, how do you feel about saying grace in public; about practicing our piety so openly.

I wonder how Norman Rockwell might have thought of this scene in light of the Gospel admonition of the practicing your piety in public.

Well, here is another point of view and it comes from the prophet Joel that we read as the first lesson this evening.  Joel is taking us in another direction.   “Sanctify a fast,” he says, “call a solemn assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast,”  and why ?– “So people will not ask ‘here is their God?’”

Centuries before the time of Jesus, Joel was preaching to a people who had lost their way, their sense of identity as God’s people.  They had turned away from the commandments of God and focused entirely on their own personal pleasures.  Now their moral tide has turned and they have turned from their foolish ways—once a scattered people they are now gathered and redeemed.  Joel calls them to worship in such a way that expresses their sanctification AND in such a way that people will take notice.  Hence the blowing of trumpets and dancing.  This feast of redemption is meant for the public to see and hear.

So this is where I come down on ashes.  Ashes are a sign of our mortality—dust to dust, ashes to ashes—we are born and our mortal bodies die.  And part and parcel to mortality is that we are not picture perfect.  Like the people before Joel we know what it is to be a scattered people, focusing too much on what we want and want it now.

 Think of the ashes emblematic of our sins our eagerness to judge others our proclivity to gossip and tell lies our greediness, to take what is not ours to have; all those things we will recite in the Litany, that we say together after we receive the ashes on our foreheads.

But the ashes are not just a symbol of our sins; for the sign of ashes is not just a smooch but in the shape of cross (I might say barely discernible but there nevertheless). The cross shaped ashes affirms our dependency on the love of God affirm the holiness of our Creator as the one who calls us into that divine holiness; the ashes affirm that we are committed to God and followers of Jesus Christ.

As with the people who stand before Joel, we are a people who know our habit of wandering away from God. We know, too, what it is to turn around and be gathered once again in the embrace of God.

 And, as with the grandmother saying grace, we know the profound truth that every moment we live is in precious in the sight of God.  These ashes keenly remind us of that truth and we wear them in humility and in great gratitude.

Ash Wednesday – 2015

St. Paul’s, Chester

The Reverend Deborah Dresser

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