Ash Wednesday is a day of contrition. It is perhaps the most meaningful liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. It is a day of fasting, a day of alms giving, a day of prayer. We acknowledge in the most direct language all the ways we separate ourselves from God and from one another. The list is long, painfully long:
We have not loved God, nor have we loved our neighbors
We have not served others as Christ does
We confess our unfaithfulness, hypocrisy, pride and impatience
We confess our self-indulgent appetites and ways that exploit other peoples
We confess our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves
We confess we have an intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts
We confess we are dishonest in daily life and work
We confess our negligence in prayer and worship and commending the faith that is in us
We confess our blindness to human need and suffering
We confess our indifference to injustice and cruelty
We confess we harbor uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors
We confess our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us
We confess we are wasteful and pollute creation with no concern for those who come after us
As we confess these sins of commission and omission, we have a smudge of ash on our heads. The ashes traditionally are made by burning last year’s palm fronds from Palm Sunday, the Sunday of our Lord’s Passion. The palms carry much ironic symbolism. They are waved by Jesus’ supporters, a motley assortment of poor and marginalized people, as he enters the city of Jerusalem during the week of Passover. These people, hard-working farmers, fishermen and some trades people, blind, lame and diseased people, prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners of all kinds, are all looking for a break from the unjust attitudes of those in power toward their miserable lives. They wave them with enthusiasm and hope!
Yet, the hopes represented by these palms branches go up in smoke like the sacrifices burning in the Temple day and night as the one in whom their hope resides is arrested and sent to a miserable and embarrassing death upon a Roman Cross.
Burning the palms is an annual ritual for me in our backyard. Having been warned by my liturgics professor, the Reverend Thomas Talley of just how hot the palms burn, I create a safe place to burn them in the bowl of my Webber Grill lined with heavy duty aluminum foil. They burn with an intensity like no other – the flames flare up white hot pushing the casual observer back from the grill. Some of the foil melts. As the fire dies out the embers glow with tiny dots of red-orange among the blackened ashes for a long time, much like the ruins of Jerusalem itself must have festered and glowed for days in that year 70 CE when Rome had had enough and made a holocaust of the city and the surrounding countryside once and for all. Like those ashes we are dust and to dust we shall return.
The poet Marilyn Nelson in her poem Dusting reminds us that dust is really a teaming living organism made up of particles and elements of spent stars, “tiny particles of ocean salt,
pearl-necklace viruses, winged protozoans: for the infinite, intricate shapes of submicroscopic living things. For algae spores and fungus spores, bonded by vital mutual genetic cooperation,
spreading their inseparable lives from equator to pole.” Dust is alive!
At the very same time, the intensity of the burning palms recalls the intensity of God’s love for this sinful and broken world and our love of God and neighbor as summarized in the Song of Songs chapter 8:
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
I remember years ago a little girl at the communion rail with her mother and father to receive the ashes. As I reached out to trace the ashes on her forehead she recoiled and backed off. I thought to myself, “Yes – these ashes are nothing to trifle with. I can understand your reaction. I hope the prayers and confessions we make this day will one day translate into a better world, a repaired world, a world turned right-side-up again, a world in which there is no need for fear like yours.”
The prophet Joel (2:1-2, 12-17) wrote in a time of great crisis for the people of God. He is calling people to assemble, to pray, to confess their sins and make sacrifices calling on God’s forgiveness and love to restore their good fortunes. Yet, due to famine and drought the people have nothing to leave, no gifts to offer, no sacrifice to make.
The prophet then imagines an incredible scene. Perhaps, he says, perhaps God himself will make the offering on our behalf. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God.” There is perhaps no more tender moment in all of scripture than this word picture of God entering the Temple to leave the offering to himself on our behalf when we are for whatever reasons unable to do so ourselves.
Every Sunday we relive the prophet’s imagined moment as we offer bread and wine at the altar of the Lord. We recall that tender moment on the cross which it turns out was not the end of the story, but only the beginning. For three days later Jesus returned to his community to fulfill the promise of God’s redemption of our broken and fallen world, commissioning us to join him in repairing the breaches in human society which are many.
Perhaps we are as foolish as Joel in our imaginings, but we are those people who believe he is still in our midst and leaves behind him a grain offering and a drink offering. We dare to hope that he will turn and relent just as he dares to hope that we will turn away from the formidable sins we confess today and rededicate ourselves to lives of love and compassion not only for all people but for all of creation itself – the water, the air, the land, the skies and the deep mysteries of the universe, seen and unseen. This is Ash Wednesday. One day to press the reset button and begin again. Always we begin again as we try to make things right and good. Amen.