Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ashes: A sign of God's love

A Sermon preached on 14th February 2018, Ash Wednesday, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Joel 2:1-2,12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

When Thomas Cranmer, the first Reformation Archbishop of Canterbury, reformed our liturgy and introduced the English Book of Common Prayer, he abolished most of the liturgies for special and holy days. In the first, 1549 version there was still a mention of Ash Wednesday in a service titled: “A declaration of scripture, with certain prayers to be used the first day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday,” but already without any ashes. By 1552, and in all subsequent prayer books until the 20th century, this was replaced by a service called “A Commination or denouncing of God’s Anger and Judgements against Sinners, to be used on the first day of Lent.” So, get ready!

Our first reading from the Prophet Joel sounds just right for denouncing God’s anger and judgements against sinners! “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near--a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes.” (Joel 2:1-2) But then, hidden within this fire and brimstone-like text, we hear a very different gentle and loving invitation:
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”  (Joel 2:12)

God was angry with the Israelites, and rightly so, because they fell short of the standards of a chosen people, of a people who were supposed to be a light to the gentiles. God was angry because God loved them, and they were harming themselves, God was angry because their behavior was impeding the transformation God intended for the whole world.  

Today’s service, now just called a proper liturgy for Ash Wednesday, contains many of the elements of the 16th century BCP. We still say the penitential Psalm 51, we say a Litany of Penitence in the place of the rather more drastic “general sentences of God's cursing against impenitent sinners,” and now, having restored the ancient custom, we are signed with the ashes from last year’s palm crosses with the words: “Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you will return.

God has good reason to be as angry with us as God was in Joel’s day. We have got even more creative in harming ourselves and others. But our God is the same God that Joel knew and declared: gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, as we have been shown in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. This service is a gentle and loving invitation to experience that grace and mercy. It is an invitation because no one has to come forward. When Anglicans refer to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the name we give to individual confession, we say that it is a sacrament that all can, none must, but some should receive. The Ash Wednesday service is a special service of reconciliation at the very beginning of Lent. 

If we choose to come forward, it is not out of fear of punishment, not because someone forces us, nor out of pride. As Jesus teaches in the reading we heard from Gospel according to Matthew, it is possible to be proud of one’s piety and conspicuous humility. No, we come because we want to, because we believe that this sign and these words will speak to us of our frailty and mortality and our weakness, as well as of the gracious love of God, that time and again remakes us and affirms our value in God’s sight. 

The Ash Wednesday liturgy is sacramental. The ashes are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The outward sign is that we repent and acknowledge our dependence and our trust. The inward grace is God’s forgiveness - unearned and undeserved – and the transformation we experience if we rend, that is open our hearts, to let God in.

Thomas Cranmer was wrong to focus his version of the Ash Wednesday liturgy on God’s anger and judgements against sinners. That is not what it is about. We receive the same sign of the cross that I make at Baptism when I mark the person as Christ’s own forever. Of course, the Ash Cross is a sign of our repentance. But even more, it signifies God’s forgiveness and acceptance. It reminds us that we really are Christ’s own forever. We belong to him even when we fall short, we belong to him both in life and in death. 

And so I invite you to repent, to turn to God, to open your hearts, and to receive this sign of God’s grace and love.

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