I have two reactions to Ash Wednesday, one when I give the ashes, the other when I receive them. Maybe someday, I’ll let you give them to each other. I just couldn’t figure out how to deal with 40 dirty thumbs, when my one is difficult enough to deal with!
When I give the ashes, I feel more sad. I reflect on all who have passed on. I remember those to whom I have given ashes who have become ashes. I think of Doug and Judith and Ed. I wonder how many of you we will bid farewell this year. I imagine each of you on your death bed. I imagine your memorial service, comforting your loved ones, saying goodbye. I feel sad.
But when I receive the ashes, I feel relieved. Sometimes I feel so tired, that a long rest in the grave doesn’t sound so bad. Sometimes I get so tired of the mistakes I make, that it is nice to know things won’t always be that way. It is nice to know that not only am I dust, this body temporary, but that all my actions, thoughts, embarrassments, and sins are dust, too. They are temporary.
It is Jesus who makes them temporary. It is Jesus who despite our dustiness and ashiness, forgives us, washes us in the waters of baptism, and claims us into his family. In baptism, we receive the mark of the cross in oil on our foreheads and the pastor says, “You are sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Today we receive that same cross marking, but this time in ash. Tonight is about temporary part—the show off part of us that needs to go, the part of us desperate for attention, the part of us in a cycle of brokenness, the part of us that needs to become dust, and the part of us that keeps turning away from God. This is our opportunity to be more aware of those things that need to go because they are getting in the way of our relationship with God. This is our time to give praise to God for turning to ash our sins.
These ashes confirm the ones in our baptism. Tonight we are reminded of our baptismal vocation. So much in our lives is ash and death. The Holy Spirit is a divine wind blowing them away. What is left is what is permanent and lasting and beautiful, and that is that God made us good, God made us sons and daughters, children of God and brothers and sisters to each other and to the poor and sick and lonely. When God marked us in baptism, God claimed us, whatever ash got all over us, whatever ash we made by burning our bridges. We have been marked by the cross of Christ forever. When all that is temporary turns to ash, our bodies, our mistakes, our possessions, our insecurities, there will be something left and that is relationship with God, God’s love. And because this mark is permanent, it goes on after we die when we are raised to new life in Christ.
The question for us tonight is, now that we have been freed through the gift of God's grace, what we are going to do between now and when our temporary body is turned to dust. We have the choice, how to live our lives. We can and will keep piling up what is temporary and hurtful on us and each other. And we have faith that Christ will prevail and we can do something that will have a more lasting effect, that will make a difference for another person in need, that will show forth God’s love and shine a light in a dusty place.