Ash Wednesday B: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Ps 103:8-14; 2 Cor 5:20-6:10; Mt 6:1-6, 16-21
A sermon preached at St. John’s, Montgomery, AL on February 18, 2015
In Greek mythology, the Phoenix is a bird that attains new life by being reborn from the ashes of its predecessor. The typical version of the myth claims that the Phoenix is an eagle-like bird with red and gold feathers and a life span of 500 years. As those 500 years come to an end and its life is over, the Phoenix builds a nest of sweet smelling woods including frankincense and myrrh and the sun sets it on fire. The flames consume the bird and three days later, the Phoenix will rise from the ashes, born anew.
The Egyptians associated the Phoenix with the daily cycle of the sun. The Romans used the symbol of the phoenix on their coins to represent rebirth and the imperishable existence of the empire. Christians connect the symbol of the Phoenix to that of resurrection. Clement of Rome writes:
Do we then think it great and remarkable for the Maker of all things to raise up again those that have piously served him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird he shows us the mightiness of his promises?
So, its not too far off for us to begin the season of Lent in ashes as this season points us straight toward the cross and resurrection. There are several scriptural precepts for ashes and new birth”David sits in ashes after getting busted by God for his unconscionable actions towards Bathsheba’s husband Uriah the Hittite. Mordecai and Esther both cover their heads with ashes when Haman threatens the future of the Jews. In both of these stories, the human response to tragedy garners a divine response of salvation. I wonder what those stories might offer us in terms of our own understanding of ashes and salvation?
Why ashes? Why Ash Wednesday? Why might we start the season of Lent by putting ashes on our head?
To put ashes on one’s head is a sign of penitence. It may signify recognition of our sinful nature and need for repentance. It may remind us of our impending deaths. They are a symbol of sorrow and mark us as Christians when worn on this day. For whatever reason we find ashes important on this day, we must not forget our most primal need”quite simply, Ash Wednesday offers us a clear and concrete outward sign of an inward nature that we feel we lack.
We all feel inadequate at some time or another and we spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to cover up our faults or deficiencies. But Ash Wednesday is not about our faults or inadequacies”that’s what the cross and resurrection are for.
Ash Wednesday is about all that we do to attempt to cover up those inadequacies. Ash Wednesday is about repenting of our sin, and our sin is about covering up the person God made us to be and trying to be someone we are not. We do so because we love ourselves more than we love God, because we are self-indulgent, because we envy those who are more fortunate than we are, because we love worldly goods and services, and because we are negligent in our attention and faithfulness to God. When we attempt to live into the world’s standards, we will always be lacking in some way or another”we will always feel inadequate.
But when we repent, when we put ashes on our forehead and recognize that we have been blind to human need and suffering, indifferent to injustice, uncharitable and prejudiced towards those who differ from ourselves, wasteful and irresponsible in our stewardship of creation, then and only then can we be restored into relationship with God and find salvation.
Ashes restore us. They are the remains of that which must be scourged, that which must be removed from us, burned away, so that we might be raised with Christ into new life. We put ashes on our head today as a symbol and reminder of our inadequacies. Not our personal inadequacies or inabilities to live into the standards humans set for one another, but the inadequacy of a life that has forgotten God, a life that is not constantly striving to do the will of God, to hear his call, and to follow his way.
We put ashes on our head because, quite simply and honestly, we are despicable”unworthy and unimportant. But thanks be to God, we are not saved because of who we are or even who we are not. We are saved, because that is what Jesus does for us, because that is what God desires.
We put ashes on our heads and then we come to the table and receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ”he who died, rose, and ascended to save us from our folly, from our sinful nature, from our attempts to cover up our inadequacies and deficiencies. On this day we will wallow in our sinful nature, but we will not leave here without hope. We will share in the communion of the one body”we will know hope in the Eucharist, the promise of the heavenly meal, the place where we encounter Jesus. And we will be nourished and encouraged by the breaking of the bread, renewed to go out into the world to show his glory, not ours.
We begin this penitential season of Lent sitting in ashes, yet, looking toward the risen Christ.