ASH WEDNESDAY SERMON 2014 – ST BARNABAS’, RIVERVALE
For all that I have done many funerals in my time, and I still do them regularly, I really don’t like funerals. Equally, I don’t like Ash Wednesday. Actually, this is one of the most difficult services of the whole church year. I find it difficult to look someone in the eye and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. But that’s a touch of reality which we need to hear at least once a year.
When we attend a funeral, we are faced with two realities – that of death and that of unfinished business.
Every funeral I attend or conduct reminds me that I, too, am mortal. Death and taxes are said to be the two unavoidable realities of our life, and some folk manage to avoid most taxes. But none of us can avoid death. Someone once told me that life is a terminal condition.
So, it is clear that death must come, not only to everyone else, but inevitably to me in due course. Except that I cannot be sure of that “due course”. I have conducted funerals for everyone from premature and still-born babies, through children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged and elderly folk, and even for a lady of over 103 summers.
In this service of Ash Wednesday, we use ashes to mark the forehead of each person, as we say, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return: repent and believe the gospel”.
The first part of this reminds us mortality and the transience of life. The ashes themselves are made from last year’s palm crosses – rejoicing at the coming of the King has become a symbol of mourning. And I’m sure you’re all aware of the words frequently recited at funerals – “earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust”. And in Psalm 103, the psalmist gloomily tells us that:
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
So, as you receive the ashes, remember your mortality.
A favourite line which I like to quote is that ‘no man on his death-bed ever lamented, “I wish I had spent more time in the office”’. It may not be entirely true, but so often in working with families in preparation for a funeral, I am told of the dreams and hopes of and for the deceased which were never fulfilled. This is especially true, of course, of those who died “before their time”. But most of us have regrets in some areas of our lives.
And this is the second – yet perhaps really the primary – meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent. The second part of what I say in marking people with ashes is “repent and believe the gospel”. Ashes in ancient times represented sorrow, repentance and mourning for personal and national sin and its consequences.
Today’s liturgy provides us with a considerably more detailed prayer of confession than is usual in our Sunday Eucharists. And it is good for us to reflect thoroughly from time to time on how “we have sinned against [God] in thought, word and deed, and in what we have failed to do”. And it is very good to hear the declaration that God forgives us. The “gloomy” psalmist whom I quoted earlier also says in the same psalm:
“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.”
So, this evening, we come as sinners aware of both our sins and our mortality. But we come also knowing that in Jesus Christ there is the antidote to both. On the day we call Good Friday, Jesus himself died to bring about the forgiveness of all our sins, and in his resurrection he opens for us the door through death to new life. Reminded as we are of sinfulness and mortality, we can still leave this place forgiven and restored, with hope in our hearts, the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life”.
The ashes will remain on our foreheads only until we wash. The forgiveness and life will remain forever.