Ashes…the dangers and possibilities…

Words for St Mary’s Whitkirk on Ash Wednesday

Ash…so what’s that all about then?

Our prayer book tells us ashes are an ancient sign of penitence…of being sorry for what we’ve done wrong. In popular culture they are perhaps a little more.

“All his dreams were reduced to dust and ashes”, we might say…after a business goes bust…or a relationship fails. With the extreme weather effects of global warming we have seen it more literally…entire towns reduced to dust and ashes by wild fires. And we see householders – grateful to be alive, but looking in despair on the ashes of their homes, trying to find the energy to start again.

So what has that to do with us at the start of Lent?

Well our ashes are fairly tame – they come in a little pot, as part of a religious ritual. And we’ve just heard in our readings the dangers of rituals…of sacrifices, prayers, fasting…how they can become empty. How there’s always the danger of the ritual becoming the end in itself…rather than something to bring us closer to God.

Isaiah shows the people asking God “why do we fast but you don’t see? Why humble ourselves and you don’t notice?” ‘What’s the point’, they seem to ask, ‘if we don’t get something back?’ As if rituals can buy God’s favour.

And in the gospel, Jesus sees people flaunting their religious practices…hoping other people will notice and admire them. Hoping to buy a good reputation perhaps.

Isaiah condemns the hypocrisy of people who fast and make sacrifices, whilst still oppressing the poor. But I don’t think that means we should dump the rituals until we get our lives sorted – I know that I’m much more mindful of the needs of others when I’m most connected to God. So perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps focusing on how rituals can build our relationship with God might then help us to live better lives.

And in a bizarre way, this Ash Wednesday tradition helps us to avoid that hypocrisy. Tonight’s ash is the burnt remains of the palms we waved on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday, the ultimate reminder of how empty our praise can be…the same crowds who waved those palms, 3 days later were calling for Jesus’ crucifixion.

The ash on our forehead isn’t just a reminder of death and sin, but of how rituals can become empty of meaning. It takes the memory of last year’s joyful celebration and literally rubs our faces in it. It’s a tangible reminder of how palm waving…or any other tradition…means nothing if it doesn’t open us up to God.

We have 40 days to repent and examine our lives – perhaps tonight is about dwelling with the ash. The mess on our foreheads that says it’s not about what we do – it’s about God’s grace. The gritty black cross that asks whether parts of our weekly sacrifice need to be reduced to dust and ashes.

Tonight, as we do weekly, as Jesus told us to, we’ll share bread and wine. We’ll use familiar, beautiful prayers and actions…but with familiarity there is always danger.

Shortly before my priesting, I had a chat with Lawrie Peat about the terrifying and wonderful prospect of presiding at the Eucharist.

One of the many wise things he said, was the day presiding stops being an awesome privilege and responsibility is the day you should stop presiding.

And exactly the same is true for all of us. That morsel of bread put into our hands, that blessing, is the most precious gift we can ever receive…do we always remember that?

Of course some days we come feeling ill, distracted, annoyed or upset by someone or something…we can’t make ourselves feel ‘holy’ or ‘pious’…but that is the point of the ritual. It’s there to bring us closer to God, or there’s no point in it.

So first we remind ourselves that we meet in the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit…that we stand on holy ground.

Together we confess our sins – accepting that we are no better than the person next to us – accepting that God really and truly forgives us all.

The word of God is proclaimed and discussed…and we have the chance to really listen for what God might be saying to us.

We sing…a chance to forget about whether we like the tune…what our voices sound like…and just to praise God in a different way.

We hear again the story of Jesus’ passion, and his invitation…we come to his table…do we come expectantly?

Perhaps tonight is the time to think about what we do each week…maybe to notice some bad habits we’ve fallen into.

And there’s another way ash has spoken to me this week. The idea of burning last year’s Palm crosses sounds wonderfully simple. But…

…first you have to undo them and cut them up – not an easy task in itself. Then they have to be heated to a very high temperature, then mashed up, then mixed with a bit of water or oil to get them to smudge properly…

This being Whitkirk – someone did that for me…but it’s a good reminder that it’s hard to reduce bad habits to dust and ashes, to make our rituals authentic. It means deliberately looking for times when we go onto autopilot, or focus too much on getting it right…or whether others are getting it right. Perhaps it means praying more and chatting less before the service.

Whatever it entails – we have to be willing to see our habits reduced to dust and ashes. But the good news is that ash makes great fertilizer. If we try burning up anything that gets in the way of encountering God…we leave perfect conditions for something new to grow.

As Richard Giles describes…when we get it right…at least occasionally we find ourselves ‘standing at the gate of heaven, handling holy things, and touching the eternal mystery.’

…worth reducing a few things to ashes.

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