“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”

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February 26, 2020


[words of imposition from the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday]

For years I have felt such a degree of bewonderment at a Lenten phenomenon that used to make me sit up and take careful notice.  At my former church home in New York City, within that highly congested, yet all too significant crossroads of Wall Street and Broadway, 15-20,000 people made their way, and for that matter still make their way, to Trinity Church on Ash Wednesday.  They come every year without fail.  They come to have carbon black smudged on their heads in the form of Cross.  They come to be reminded of their mortality.  Now that is a staggering number of people, and such a swell in weekday attendance, that it demanded we marshall every possible black-cassocked resource in the southern part of Manhattan to do the work of imposition.  You should have seen our thumbs when all was said and done.  From way before sun up to way after sundown, we stood there amid long queues of somber souls who wanted that simple ministration of being ashed with a cross, along with the sobering words “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.” 

Remember, don’t you ever forget, keep it fresh and green in that mind and heart and soul of yours that you are but a speck of lifeless, burned-out matter as you enter this holy place…that’s your heritage, that’s your present tense in one sense, and as a matter of fact, that’s your destiny as well…and if, in your arrogance, you think you’ve got something going for you, think again!  Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.  Oh I know there’s much more to be said about who and what we are in the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ, but we’ll get to that truth in due course…like Easter and Pentecost.  For today, let’s honor one truth at a time. 

In this season of life when we’ve become a notoriously impious lot who taste and nibble at any spirituality on the market that will tell us I’m OK and you're OK and we’re OK, I think it nigh incredible that we would ever even listen to such a dust-laden dictum, much less have it smudged on our consciousness.  I’m surprised the Standing Liturgical Commission hasn’t decided to remove the medievalism here, extract the penitential, and substitute new words: “My brother, my sister, you are lovable and adorable, and God just thinks you are peachy-keen. —and, instead of ashes, then perhaps sprinkle the imposee with the silver glitter of fairy dust. 

Now why in heaven’s name would such a lugubrious action that sounds and feels almost like “mud-in-your-eye” bring in the sheaves?  I’ll cast caution to the wind, and hazard a guess.  I would say it draws the masses because it becomes for so many of the Wall Streeters—and for a good number of us—one of the few moments in life when the unvarnished truth is spoken, and as Jesus told us in no uncertain terms, the Truth will set us free.  We treasure our freedom, and truth is the door that opens itself to it.  Here is Ash Wednesday—a liturgical nano-second-in-time when the Church can say without equivocation that our souls are tarnished, that we are broken, that there is something “not right” about the likes of us, that we have erred and strayed like lost sheep, that there is no health in us—AND that we are in dire need of being rescued.  You know we’ve lost that important sense of desperation, the true gift of desperation that calls out for a Savior, but the reality is, nonetheless, still present and still yearning.

Without a strong-as-vinegar reminder of that which constitutes part of the truth about us, I suspect we might go to stand on a street corner like one of those inflated, pumped-up Pharisees, tooting our egoistic horns, making a display of our pompous selves, posturing self-righteousness to the nines.   Episcopalians are good at that.  How counter-cultural it is to learn to tell the truth about ourselves, the unvarnished brand; share it with God, perhaps with another; get yourself rightsized during this Lent, and do it without any display whatsoever.  I would go so far as to say, forget about all this “giving-up” business for Lent; or parading about Little Rock with ash-streaked foreheads; or using briars and thorns for floral displays at the Altar.  Instead, concentrate on your inner life and your own yearning, pining, desire for Jesus to set it right, help us get back on track, deliver us from the disquietude of this world, rescue us from the powers of what we once referred to as “the world, the flesh and the devil.”   Cultivate that relationship in a spirit of truth, and all else will follow.  

I’m certainly exaggerating my point just to caution any or all of us about trivializing and domesticating the spiritual power of this very important day and season.   Every year some of my acquaintances will proudly tell me that they have given up lobster for Lent; or blue-colored, peanut-chocolate M&Ms; or chateaubriand avec l’onions.  I just want to freak out.  This kind of ego-inflating self-denial has little impact on one’s life, and absolutely nothing to do with our walk with Christ.  If you really want to give up something, why not—as one sage put it—“give up your fear of failure, or your small and limited view of God, or your need to worry, or your comfort zone, or your desire to people please, or your tendency to overcommit, or your estimation that your opinions about the nature of things constitute truth.” (Phil Ressler, 40 Things to Give up for Lent).  Now we might just be getting somewhere, and Christ could well be honored in the process.

Listen to a portion of today’s Gospel reading from Matthew in contemporary parlance: Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.  When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.  And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?  Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.
(Matthew 6, The Message)

I got into trouble one year when I preached an Ash Wednesday sermon on the very end of that pericope, that portion of Scripture.  It says: Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage… I said to the congregation, “Don’t just do something this Lent, sit there….”  The liturgical police from the diocese got after me, and the pious folk in the congregation begged me to enjoin them to practice acts of self-denial, mortifications of the flesh, edifications of the mind, and invigorations of the spirit.  One person even said, “Don’t you understand dear Father?  The Church is the Gold’s Gym of the spiritual life.  It’s where we pump ourselves up and strengthen our spiritual abs and lats.”  I was so tempted to say, “Fie on thee, that’s inflationism of the worst kind—you’ve missed the point.”  The point is developing a relationship, a relationship where honesty is the key.  Sit down with Jesus, and let the focus shift from you to him, and then, as the Gospel promises, you will begin to sense his good grace. 

There is an abruptness about Ash Wednesday.  Truth-telling always comes in that kind of package, and while it may knock us for a loop, or irritate the fire out of us, or cause us to feel & think, the truth will set us free.  Let me end with the Collect for Ash Wednesday—a truthful and earnest prayer if ever there was one.  In earlier times we said it every day during Lent, but now—probably because of its vinegar-esque potency and brutal honesty—we say it only one time, i.e. today.  Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made, and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.  Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.