on Ash Wednesday (a little early)I really love Ash Wednesday. Maybe what I love about it is that because of the round of services traditionally offered on that day in the Episcopal Church (morning, noon and evening) the whole day really is about worship. But I also was challenged (in a positive way) by reading some of my fellow bloggers in the RevGalBlogPal ring, for whom the ashes are a new tradition. This is my Ash Wednesday sermon from 2001, and when I read it, I thought, this sums up what I think about it.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, welcome to the feast of Ash Wednesday.
Feast? This doesn’t seem like much of a feast. A feast is a party, a great big dinner with great food, pretty clothes and witty conversation. It is most certainly not a somber church service with confessions, long prayers and to top it off, somberly dressed clergy smudging your forehead with ashes and saying “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But Ash Wednesday is a feast. It’s not a feast of exchanging presents like Christmas or a birthday. It’s not a day for a great meal and lounging in front of the fireplace like Thanksgiving. Ash Wednesday should really be titled the feast of our unimportance. The celebration of the notion that life, the universe and everything is not, in fact, all about me.
We need at least one day set aside on the calendar to be reminded of this idea. Being human, we probably need more than one. Fr. Jim has said in his sermons earlier today that Ash Wednesday celebrates the fact that we are “critters” and not the Creator, but that is a lesson we need to hear over and over again.
But until we accept the idea of our limits, until we accept the idea of our mortality, until we accept the idea that we are human, finite and therefore just like everyone else on this planet before and after us, we will fall prey over and over again to the sins that the Litany of Penitence appointed for this evening reminds us of. We will be self-indulgent and exploit others, we will be envious of those more fortunate than ourselves, we will be negligent and dishonest and uncharitable and wasteful.
All the energy we pour into those selfish activities is a reflection of our inner scrambling to deny the inevitable, that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return. Every hour we spend daydreaming in shiny mall does not avoid the reality of gritty smudgy ashes. Wouldn’t it be much easier if we would admit it, as a speaker Fr. Jim and I heard on our clergy retreat (Kevin Martin)who asked us, “why not die to yourself now and just get it over with?”
The forty days of Lent could really teach us something about dying to ourselves if we would just let it. Practices of fasting and self-denial are not just about giving up chocolate, as so many of us were brought up to believe. As our lesson from Isaiah points out to us, there is no point to giving up chocolate if you do not also sacrifice in the ways God cares about, if you observe a fast but continue to serve only your interests and oppress those around you. The fast God chooses has nothing to do with calories unconsumed, cigarettes unlighted or sodas undrunk if it does not also include the intent to loose the bonds of injustice and share your bread with the hungry. Our actions of prayer, fasting and self-denial are not the ultimate goal but more like the practices a basketball team goes through before playing an actual game--so that when the opposition is in your face and you are down by twenty points you remember to play with courage and self-discipline. Practice self-denial and even in the most stressful situations you may find yourself less tempted to be self-indulgent, self-reliant and self-involved.
Celebrate this feast day. Die to yourself now, and get it over with. Remember you are dust. Choose God’s fast, and let your light break forth like the dawn.