This evening begins, with the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, a 40-day Lenten journey that intends to lead us into the paschal mystery of the Easter triduum: Holy Week where we memorialize our Lord's passion, death, and resurrection. Ash Wednesday is the door through which we enter into the very heart of the mystery of salvation, a salvation which springs forth from the grips of death on Easter morning. But friends, night comes before the dawning of the morn; sorrow precedes joy; and death precedes life.
The lenten journey is one marked by death and dying, a six week exodus into the wilderness of the soul, forty days of sobriety, humility, and exercise of spiritual discipline: all with the intent of putting sin, vice, and uncleanness to death. “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” In just a moment, you will hear these words as the sign of the cross is made with ashes upon your forehead. Now we must realize that the outward sign of placing ashes upon the forehead is not simply a tradition of the church but is an ancient sign given to God’s people which has its roots in Holy Scripture. In the third chapter of Genesis God said to Adam “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen 3:19).
Death came after the fall, the dust which God breathed His spirit into was not meant to return to dust, but live. The ashes then remind us of our mortality, our frailty, and this life of suffering. Thus the ashes represent our mortality and death as the result of sin; death from which no one shall escape.
From the book of Job we see that ashes not only represent mortality but also repentance. Having come face to face with his Creator and humbled before him, Job the priest of God cries “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” With dust and ashes he repents; an outward sign signifying the penitent and repentant disposition of his heart. Mortality and repentance.
I would like to add one more important aspect to the significance of the ashes: prayerful intercession. In the book of Daniel we see that ashes signify not only mortality and repentance but also the state of one who has entered into deep and sincere prayer for others. In the ninth chapter of the book of the prophet Daniel we find a repentant man sickened with concern not only for himself but for his fellow countrymen,
And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: And I prayed unto the LORD my God, and made my confession, and said… We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments…
And in verse fifteen he pleads for God to be merciful unto Israel, “O Lord, according to all thy righteousness, I beseech thee, let thine anger and thy fury be turned away from thy city Jerusalem, thy holy mountain: because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people are become a reproach to all that are about us.”
He bows his ashen head and intercedes for the sins of God’s people. Likewise, by the imposition of ashes upon the forehead head, we are reminded of mortality, the need of repentance for sins, and of interceding for others. It tells us that the lenten journey is an intense uniting of prayer, fasting and supplication unto God. It is a journey of drawing closer to God by detaching ourselves from the pleasures of this world, in particular food, drink, and pleasures of the flesh. Unholy acts are displaced by classic Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
And although, by the imposition of ashes, mother Church calls us to an outward sign, ultimately what does she want inwardly? What does she desire? She wants not just the external sign, but the interior reality of penitence. “Rend your hearts, not your garments” cries the prophet! This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want us to do the external sign, we’ve seen from scripture that he commands us to fasting, sackcloth, ashes and mourning. But what it does mean is that in addition to the external sign what God really wants is for us to tear open our hearts. To open our hearts in repentance from sin, to turn away from all that is defiling and unclean, and to return back to him. To not only return, but to love him with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength.
Friends, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of returning unto our Lord. The call to repent and be healed has sounded to all who would hear. To every prodigal who has journeyed off into that far country, and there, squandered their father’s inheritance on the fleeting pleasures of this world. Mother church in her wisdom is calling each and everyone of us to a solemn Lenten fast which begins today on Ash Wednesday.
Now, will you over this season of Lent, perform the spiritual disciplines perfectly? Will the committing of sins and wrestling with temptations cease? Well, we all know the answer: absolutely not. We will struggle along the Lenten road. It will challenge us. It will be fraught with perils and dangers of all kinds both from without and within. We will be as imperfection seeking perfection. Through these forty days in the wilderness will suffer failures and lapses in spiritual exercise (willful fasting and obedient prayer will not go unchallenged!).
This scheming world will do everything within its power to attract and lure us with bright shiny objects: we may long to once again eat from the swine trough of sin, may even go so far as to fill our bellies on the husks of vice. Some days will feel bone dry, parched, days of spiritual aridity which can and will come upon the soul.
Sanctification, particularly in the spiritual labors of Lent, is not a perfect process: putting sin to death, mastering the appetites and re-ordering our loves is neither easy nor comfortable. But it is the process by which we draw nearer and nearer to the Lord. It is the means by which we are made more and more like Christ. It is the way of the cross through which we enter into eternal life. But friends, let us not grow weary in doing good and let not the stumbles and frustrations from sin and human weakness harden the heart.
But let us trust the Lord in the desert, remembering that in the wilderness He shapes and prepares his people; makes them ready his to enter into that good land which lies just beyond the Jordan. And in our Lenten desert he will do the deep and mysterious work of preparing us to enter into the life, joy, and blessings of Easter.
And when he came to himself, he said I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
The road to Easter begins tonight with repentance. And, it ends in the loving, compassionate and merciful arms of our God. Therefore humble yourselves before Him. Rend your heart and not your garments. Always trusting in the mercy of our Father who “hates nothing he has made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent.” Let us return to the God of all mercies whose very property is to be merciful. Amen.