Augustana Lutheran Church
1 March 2017 + Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday is a curious thing, isn’t it? First, we hear a gospel text that begins with a warning against practicing our piety before others, urging us instead to give alms, pray, and fast in secret. And then we proceed to dab our foreheads, perhaps the most publicly visible part of our bodies, with ashes — doing exactly what Jesus just told us not to do.
It’s also not a particularly popular message to go about proclaiming “you are dust and to dust you shall return” — words evocative of the funeral liturgy — “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself in a young, urban church plant in Chicago that decided to take Ash Wednesday to the streets, offering ashes to passers-by at train and bus stops and other busy intersections and gathering places in the city.
I remember the first year I participated in this “Ashes to Go” tradition. I was paired with one of our pastors and a fellow parishioner, and we were stationed outside a blue line train stop during the morning rush. After a while of imposing Chicagoans with ashes, I’ll never forget what came next: An SUV coasting down Damen Avenue — mind you, this is a fairly busy street — slows down as it approaches us. The driver’s window rolls down, and a woman, spotting my pastor, yells out, “Hey! Can you come here and do the kids real quick?” And he did, right in the middle of the street.
I’ve participated in Ashes to Go in the years since then, and what strikes me, again and again, is the response among those who stop to receive ashes — grateful for the opportunity when they might otherwise have not been able to make it to church or simply have forgotten all about it.
This curious thing we do — marking our foreheads with small crosses of ash — is a powerful ritual. It’s a reminder of our mortality, our creatureliness, our utter dependence on and connection to the earth.
Sara Miles has spoken of her own experience taking Ash Wednesday to the streets in her home city of San Francisco, remarking how often people run after her asking for ashes while she’s out and about. For Miles, the profundity of the ritual lies in the rare opportunity to be physically touched by a stranger and told the truth about who we are.
The fact is that we live in a culture where we’re being sold almost daily the idea that we’re immortal or that somehow we can delay or deny the inevitability of death or control the outcome. But the truth is quite the opposite, and so Ash Wednesday comes as a countercultural, even welcome, relief to let our guard down and to acknowledge that we’re not the ones in charge. This day is a reminder of our mortality, and so reminded, it’s also an acceptance and coming to terms with our limitations as human beings.
On Ash Wednesday we confess our shortcomings, but we repent in dust and ashes not for the sake of feeling sorry for ourselves and certainly not for showing off to others. We do so because we know that God’s mercy and capacity to forgive and to heal are always deeper and wider than we can imagine.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes this in his prayer, “Marked by Ashes”:
We are able to ponder our ashness with some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
Ash Wednesday stands at the beginning of Lent, the church’s preparatory season for the celebration of the resurrection, and so we receive these ashes today as anticipatory of Easter itself and the certain promise of our new life in Christ.
It’s no coincidence that the ashes that will shortly be traced on our foreheads are traced precisely where the water of our baptism began our new life in Christ.
We are marked with water and named as God’s own in our baptism, and we are marked with ashes on this day too as God’s own fiercely beloved people.