Wednesday, 1 March 2017

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

A Liberal Application of Ashes III*

The language used by the celebrant at an Ash Wednesday service for the “imposition of ashes” is nothing if not sharp:

Remember (your name here) that you are dust.
To dust you shall return.

Don't blurt out something like this to the stranger in the aisles of a grocery store. You might find yourself answering questions like:

Why did you say such an aggressive and unsettling thing to a stranger?
What gave you the right to intrude on somebody else's sense of well-being?

Tonight you are volunteers. And the words in question are part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy and not a personal blurt on my part. But are they even news? Who needs to be reminded that life is short and human nature is flawed? Isn't it the comic book caricature of the clergyman that he's the old guy up at the front of the church who looks at people in good health and enjoying their lives rather a lot, so that he can shake his finger at them and say – “it won’t last, you know!” 

He tells the beautiful that they will soon be old and ugly.
He tells the strong that they will weaken and fade.
He tells those proud of the recent past that their achievements are really just so much dry grass.

Why would anyone want to be such a professional wet blanket? No let this old clergyman at the front of the church rejoice with you about what everything which is good and lively and on the ascendant in your daily life.

And, frankly, like most pastors I can conjure up in my mind the faces of people who I know to be currently struggling with the deathward stance their lives have taken. They are ill and their bodies will not get better. A treasured relationship has died and will never be restored. They were sidelined in their employment or vocation. They are caught up by their own deep moral flaw or are the victims of that same flaw in somebody else. The bloom is off their rose. They’ve been around the block. They've seen too much. What more could their parish priest possibly add as he advances upon them this evening at the beginning of an Ash Wednesday service with a black and dripping thumb:

V. Remember, Roger, that you are dust. To dust you shall return.
R. Thank you, Father, I knew that.

We might hypothesize somebody who is "not in the know" about the fragility of life or the limits of their own natural goodness. They are in the darlings of everybody at work, they are regulars at the gym, they have perfect children with good teeth and an immaculate house – but in order for them to be that ignorant about life they would also have to be people who didn’t read or who had no vicarious experience of other people’s grief and contingency. I’m not sure that such people - devoid of questions, doubts or depth – even exist. If they did, then I suppose that a liberal application of ashes accompanied by aggressive words reminding them of the shortness and uncertainty of human life meant to assault their self-reliance would be perfectly in order. We might be doing them a favor although, frankly, I’m not sure you'd find them here at an evening Ash Wednesday service or our service at noon today at the office unless it were completely out of habit or unless they’d walked into the wrong doorway by mistake and were too embarrassed to get up and leave.

So why are we here? And what is this sharp language and this small plate of ashes about? What are we beating ourselves up about? It’s precisely this, I believe: If the language is sharp it is not meant to say that your lives or your activities are bad or without value. In fact, it’s a message that heads in quite the opposite direction: the sharp language underscores the tremendous value to be found in our lives, our pursuits and our allegiances by reminding us of the frame within which these events take place and that we must honour the time we have been given.

The American poet Carl Sandburg wrote a poem called Limited in his 1916 collection entitled Chicago Poems. It goes like this:

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains of the nation.​
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go fifteen all-steel coaches 
   holding a thousand people.​
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men and women laughing in the  
   diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)​
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers: “Omaha.”


What is a limitation if not the edge of something. Quite neutral really - it defines where the thing stops and something else begins. Or where the thing stops and mere space begins.

Think of it this way: You are at the bottom of Puy de Dome and you have your easel set up and your paints out on the tray. You are painting a picture of the Puy de Dome with all the paragliders swirling around its top and the funicular train heading up the slope and the communications tower on the top. There’s a lot you might dream about painting but you do not have the liberty of including everything to the infinite right or left, to the utter east or west. You’re not painting Issoire or Vichy.

Your canvas has an edge.  When the painting is finished it will have a frame and the frame defines what the subject is and ensures that it is not some other thing. Let your mind drift to Issoire or Vichy or Le Puy-en-Velay. Today, in this time and place you are painting Puy-de-Dome.

Without its frame life is, at best, undefined. If you come to one of our soup suppers down at 42 you will be dished out a bowl of soup. You will be dished out a certain amount depending on the ratio of soup to hungry humans. Look into the bottom of your bowl.  There is your meat and veg. . That is your portion. And your portion, generous or slender, is not infinite.

These ashes are not the church's attack on youth, beauty, strength, innocence, the pride in one’s achievements or healthy egos. They remind us pointedly that our time on earth is finite and the beautiful things of life and the noble things and the worthy things must be chased down and worked towards.

Or think of it this way: It is my experience that people, in the wake of a funeral, or a great and troubling event, feel disturbed. Beyond feelings of sympathy or empathy for the family of the deceased and beyond even the immediate loss of somebody loved and valued, they are disturbed about what this means for them. There is a nagging recognition of life's ticking clock. The question posed by the death of a friend or by a disasterous event are these:

Have the requisite colours been added to my painting - here in this 30th year of my life or the 40th or even the 58th? What about my broken relationships which have never been mended and which are unmended for want of a conversation or a letter? What about my youthful vow to “straighten up and fly right?” - to be courageous and self-giving? What about the midlife promise to recover that early vow?

Having thrown our handful of earth into the grave after the funeral we brush the dust from our hand as we walk back to the car and hope that the unsettled feeling passes and that life returns to normal. We wipe the smudge off our forehead with a soapy washcloth at the end of the Ash Wednesday service and with it perhaps the healthful but troubling question will disappears.

Which would be a shame, really, because that's exactly the question that this service wants to pose. It’s not an accusation that we are shallow and stupid people of whom little good can be said.

We are the living.
We are the mostly healthy.
And we have years left to us.

To become aware that we must make the most of our days, to seek out love and to take risks, to discover the enduring value of relationships and commitments would be the gift of a lifetime.


*to exercise full disclosure:  the III indicates that this is the third iteration of an Ash Wednesday sermon that I can't quite get right.  It'll be an absolute corker when I preach it on the Ash Wednesday before my retirement.












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