Once again we gather as a community of God’s beloved people to begin the journey of Lent. To make the shift from one season of our church lives to the next. I think sometimes about what a blessing it is to be in a liturgical church, to have this rhythm to help us remember the great breadth and depth of all of who God is in our lives and who we are to God. Tonight our service has a focus on penitence and the receiving of Ashes. It gives us the opportunity to remember by word and symbol the fragile and brief nature of this earthly life. To reflect on how precious it and we are before God. And to remember how God holds us in that life...and that we can indeed trust God to do that.
Last Sunday I talked about thin places and mountain top moments. How sometimes we have those experiences in which we know that we have come face to face with the living God and have, for a moment caught God’s vision. Last Ash Wednesday God graced me with one of those moments during this service. What came from that moment on the mountain has stayed with me through Lent and Easter and beyond and I’d like to pass it on to you tonight.
Last year, I had the privilege of being the one to "impose" the ashes upon those coming forward as the prayer book says. When I got home that night, I had to go look up the word impose to see if there was something I was missing, but all the definitions had the same sense of the word that I am familiar with, that of bringing something on someone with force or at the very least authority, pushing it at them. Because that certainly was not what I had I felt. I had felt instead that I was giving each of them a splendid gift. The Sunday before, our mentor, Father T had led us in a comptempletive prayer workshop, and one of the things we had reflected on was that essentially the "dust" that we are is the stuff of the universe, the same matter as supernovas and stars, glaciers and canyons, that the very ground we stand on and the air that we breathe... is the stuff, could it be....of God? This came back to me that night, and as I marked that small cross of ash on each forehead, I felt as if what I was truly saying to each person was, "Remember that you are of God, and to God you will return."
We are dust. We are God’s. How ever we look at it, our lives are not our own, nor are they endless. We are all part of a connected and intertwining community with God at the center. Everything we are, everything we have, belongs to the One who created us and loves us beyond measure. The One who has desired to be in relationship with us through all time and has kept faithful covenant with us forever. The One who became flesh in order to be among us, to be us in order to both show us God and how to be human.
It is when we forget and lose sight of this essential truth and fall out of right relationship that we sin. It is then that we are in need of forgiveness. It is then that we must repent and turn to a new way of being with God, with others and with ourselves. It is then that we must remember again who we really are – stuff of earth, yes, but chosen and beloved by God, covenanted through all time, graced beyond measure, redeemed and saved by a love so vast that we cannot conceive it.
Lent provides us with a time to step away, to quiet and to center ourselves, to remember who and whose we are. And a time, too, to eliminate some of the distractions that keep us from remembering the essential truth that, at points along the way we have sinned, we have missed the mark and have failed, in our relationships with God, with others and with ourselves, and do need to repent, be forgiven and be redeemed by God’s unfathomable redeeming love. The spiritual disciplines of alms and prayer and fasting that the Gospel speaks of offer us a way to focus on the One who created us and loves us and calls us back into that right relationship. By taking time in prayer for stillness to listen and really hear and respond to the quiet voice of Spirit within us and by drawing away from the “stuff” of life in all its forms that surrounds and smothers our senses, perhaps we can get a better sense again of who we are as we stand before our God. Perhaps if we can fast from the overload of all that surrounds us we can once again remember our vulnerability as human beings, the brevity of our lives, and how truly intertwined we are with one another, as well as with this fragile planet that God has given us stewardship of. The giving of alms might call us to gratitude for God’s gifts in our own lives, as well as providing us with a time to repent in a meaningful way of how we often fail to notice the true needs of those around us.
As we leave this place tonight, each of us will have a cross of ash to carry with us into the night as a reminder of our vulnerable humanity, but also our connection to the one who created, loves and calls us, to life, and when we fall, to new life again. “Remember, my beloved ones, you are God’s and to God you will return.”