A sermon for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Psalm 103 or 103:8-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
We have heard the readings for today. In just a minute I will recite the invitation to participate in the ancient rite of repentance and restoration to the life in the Church. The structure of the service comes from the fist BPC in 1549, with several revisions (Hatchett). Ove the years I have preached on the readings. I have used the time to teach about repentance which is more than giving up, some semi-desired good for 6 weeks; or taking on some temporary good. One thing I have never thought about is the central image of this evening – ashes: The prayer over the ashes includes the phrase you have created us out of the dust of the earth: The imposition of ashes includes the words: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. So, what are the biblical images of dust and ash that might help us in the observance of a holy Lent?
Well the first is obvious, Genesis 2:7
then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
God formed us from the dust of the ground. In this creation, story dust is associated with the desert wilderness, and its chaos and danger (Gaventa and Petersen) A bit later we read that all living creatures are created from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:19). As often as dust is associated with life or abundance, we never seem to be rid of the dust in our house, dust is also frequently used to represent judgment, humiliation, grief, or mourning (Sakenfeld). The writer of Ecclesiastes notes (Cross References Gen 2:7):
all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 12:5-8)
Paul wrote to the Corinthians (Cross References Gen 2:7)
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:47-49)
You can hear the long complex use of ‘dust’ as it related to our lives, created, lived, and, died.
A similar word for dust is ‘ash’ In the bible ash is commonly associated with a personal or national crisis that provokes some ritual of fasting, indicating penitence. ‘Ashes’ designates a person or thing worthless, and symbolizes our mortality (Sakenfeld).
Some of the powerful uses of ‘dust’ and ‘ash’ in the church setting are at burials. In the Commendation, we hear:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. (BCP 499)
And a bit later, by the grave we hear:
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our [beloved] N; and we commit [their] body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. (BCP 501)
In all this, we hear the deeply complex relationship between ourselves, made in the image of God, our lives, for better or for worse, and our dying.
So, let’s see if we can connect all this. Out of the chaos of barren wilderness, God brings life out of dust, and not just human life, all living animals. Throughout scripture when God’s people get themselves in a mess, which is a common story, dust and or ashes is a symbol of repentance, or the intention to change their lives. As we heard in Joel, whenever there is a prophetic voice pronouncing doom and calling for repentance, there also a voice that announces God’s desire for divine restoration. In the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, we hear the teacher proclaim all is vanity because in the end everything and everyone returns to the dust from whence it came. However, woven into the emphasis on vanity is the belief that really good can come from engaging in routines of life, for they are a gift from God (Sakenfeld). Paul tell the Corinthians
Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49).
The burial rite acknowledges that at death we all return to the earth, dust, and ashes. However, the rite is grounded in Easter, which is why we proclaim
yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ
The linkage of dust and ashes to life is, from dust and ash to life; in dust and ash we repent of broken bonds with the assurance of divine grace; at death, we return to dust and ashes trusting that we will know eternal life in God’s glorious presence. It is this circle of dust and ashes and life to life that gives Lent a purpose and our faith meaning.
Charles Hoffacker’s thoughts on Ash Wednesday focused on giving alms. He writes:
… alms releases us from a poisonous focus on ourselves, … [as we] recognize the need of our sisters and brothers, people made in God’s image, … we are humbled because we realize that what we can do is but little. [But in doing what we can] … we recognize how, in the face of human need, we are poor yet privileged (Hoffacker) (emphasis mine).
So, I’m not going to worry about doing Lent right. I can’t. Nobody can. Therefore, I invite you to join me to choose a discipline because as Hoffacker notes doing what we can will be valuable. And then let’s do our best to do justice; love kindness and mercy, trusting that as we fall short God continues to walk along side by side in our humble journey.
Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hatchett, Marion J. Commentary on the American Prayer Book. New York: HarperCollins, 1980. book.
Hoffacker, Charles. “Give Alms! Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2017.” 1 3 2017. Sermons that Work.
Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.