Tonight’s Ash Wednesday meditation. Short and sweet. Enjoy!
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:-10
From Ashes To Grace
The church I grew up never once hosted an Ash Wednesday service. In fact, they were vehemently opposed to the idea, saying it was too morbid, too ritualistic, too – well – Catholic. Year after year, I would watch my Catholic classmates come to school marked with ash on their forehead and I quietly wondered what it would be like to have ashes cling to my forehead.
During my second year of seminary I was interning at Pilgrimage United Church of Christ in Marietta, Georgia and my pastor asked me if I would be willing to help out with the church’s Ash Wednesday service. She had to go out of town at the last minute and I ended up co-leading the service with our associate pastor. I went in with no expectations – in fact, I was a little bit nervous and just wanted to (for lack of a better phrase) get it over with. But I was blown away by the service. As the congregation came forward to receive their ashes and the sounds of the piano playing Come and Fill joined mine and Heidi’s voices repeating, “From dust you came, to dust you shall return,” I felt something move through me. And suddenly I understood why it is so important for me, as a Protestant Christian who believes in faith-based spirituality and feels that God is still speaking, to take part in this service every year.
In a very basic sense of the service, Ash Wednesday is about remembering our own mortality. It is about confessing our sins. It is not supposed to be uplifting or cheerful. We do not bring in the brass and fill the sanctuary with poinsettias or lilies. We came from the dust of the earth and the ashes clinging to our foreheads remind us that – in the same way that Christ clung on the cross – we are all mortal. We are all sinners. We will all return to the dust of the earth.
But more than that, Ash Wednesday reminds us of our humanity. The ashes that we will receive tonight come from the palms leftover from last year’s Palm Sunday worship service. This is the ash of the palms that we once laid down for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem and we shouted ‘Hosanna!’. We do this because it reminds us of the complexities of who we are as human beings. We strive to be good people and yet we fall short. We shout ‘Hosanna!’ and lay down palms for Jesus to enter Jerusalem on and yet we betray him and put him on the cross.
Wearing the ash of the palms that we once so boldly laid down for Jesus reminds us of the contradictory nature of being human. We try. We fall short.
But – God’s grace redeems us. Always. And that is why it is so important for us to celebrate Ash Wednesday.
I have realized that while Ash Wednesday is about confessing our sins and remembering our mortality, wearing ashes is not supposed to be something done in shame. It is something to be done in assurance of God’s grace – God’s amazing grace.
Tonight as you receive your ashes I will not be using the standard imposition phrase, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Instead I thought it would be more appropriate this year for us, as people bound together by grace, bound together by our commitment to one another and to this community and bound together by the desire to grow in our faith to receive our ashes by hearing the phrase, “Turn away from your sins and believe in the good news.”
We try. We fall short. We face our humanity, our shortcomings, our sins. But God’s grace redeems us always.
Turn away from your sins and believe in the good news. Thanks be to God! Amen.