A sermon for Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2,12-17, or Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, Psalm 103 or 103:8-14
Some weeks ago a discussion among several priest colleagues, raced across the web about whether one makes a cross or a smudge during the imposition of ashes. Some argued for an ash cross, as a reminder of our own duplicity in the actions leading to Jesus’ death on the cross, and Jesus’ resurrection which leads to our redemption. Others, including myself, argued for a smudge as a reminder of our sinfulness. At least I am wary of getting ahead of ourselves with an Easter reminder. Although we know the Easter is real, the journey needs to be complete, and that includes the difficult road to Good Friday.
Last Thursday David Brook’s Column Ease and Ardor [i] contrasted the essayist Michel De Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. Brooks writes that Montiagne grew up in a polarized, religious worn torn France; suffered the death of children and his best friend. This external disorder is reflected by internal disorder. Montiagne attempted to study his own mind. Brooks notes:
He observed himself with complete honesty, and accepted his limitations with a genial smile.
His honest self-examination lead to an emotional/ spiritual balance.
Brooks writes that Johnson
was charming but not amiable … [and he] sought a life of improvement and ardor [passion].
Johnson’s life had its own disorder, likely Tourette’s syndrome, a fear of insanity, and nighttime fears and jealousies. Johnson’s efforts for self-control were external, and social. Brooks notes:
he was moralist, writing essays on vices and pains that plagued him: envy, guilt,, boredom and sorrow, … he battled error and vice. … His goal was self-improvement and the moral improvement of his readers.
In concluding Brooks writes:
Montaigne was more laid back, and our culture is more comfortable with his brand of genial self-acceptance and restraint. … but Johnson was a witty but relentless moral teacher in a culture where people were likely to grade themselves on a generous curve, …
It struck me that both made life time honest self-examinations. The connection between the Books’ column and the web discussion is the appreciation of true self-examination, by whatever method is honest and works for the individual. That is core to this day and our intention of beginning a Holy Lent.
Rev. Dr. Amy Richter asks: So why the ashes? She believes ashes
remind us that we are mortal and echoing the creation story where God lovingly made human beings from the dust of the ground … Humility is about being grounded in the truth of who we are [and that] we accept ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality and the truth of who we are. [ii]
Ash crosses or smudges, Brooks and Richter sent me back to the creation account of Genesis 1. [iii] The idea of people in God’s likeness, is borrowed from the local custom of kings erecting selfies, then known as statues, reminding subjects who has dominion. The New Interpreters’ One Volume Commentary notes:
Given this background, humans are called to be living images or likenesses of God and extensions of God’s dominion over all the earth. God entrusts humans with responsibility to exercise their dominion (1:28) in God’s image of care and concern for all creation, including its most vulnerable members [iv]
That’s a long way of saying we are to care for each other, and all of creation, the way God so loving made us from the dust of the earth.
And so it’s back to what Jesus is getting to, what you do matters. Crosses or smudges, who cares if it is a sign of honest self-examination and the beginning of being more like the people we are made to be. Internal or external examination, who cares if it is a sign of honest self-examination and the beginning of being more like the people we are made to be. Give something up, take something on, 100 days of… or 7 weeks of … who cares if it is a sign of honest self-examination and the beginning of being more like the people we are made to be. And just in case any of us begin to think we are there, and Matthew indicates there are some who do, well the journey to be the people we are made to be continues … all the way to Jesus feet, nailed to the post of a cross.
[i] David Brooks, New York Times, Opinion Pages, op-ed columnist, February 27, 2014
[ii] Amy Richter, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/02/18/ash-wednesday-abc-2014/, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2014 What audience?, March 5, 2014
[iii] My preference for Genesis 1 over of the more familiar Genesis 2 is a topic for another day.
[iv] David Petersen, Beverly Gaventa, The New Interpreters’ One Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, 2010, Genesis 1:28),