Ash Wednesday Sermon
The Revd Fr William Martin
Today we begin the great season of Lent. Our liturgical season goes back to the earliest days of the Christian Church when the faithful were called into memory the journey up to Jerusalem and the great events of the Passion which came to pass in the life of Jesus Christ. Lent is a journey. Lent is a time of journeying in memory with Christ, so that we may embrace more profoundly the Word of God in himself and in us. Journeying with Christ means being with him, accompanying him, and accepting his offer of nearness and friendship.
“With its duration of 40 days, Lent acquires an undoubted evocative force. It tries to recall some of the events that marked the life and history of ancient Israel, also presenting to us again its paradigmatic value. Let us think, for example, of the 40 days of the universal flood, which ended with the covenant established by God with Noah and thus with humanity, and of the 40 days of Moses’ stay on Mount Sinai, which were followed by the gift of the tablets of the Law.” (Benedict XVI, Ash Wednesday, 2006)
Our First Sunday in Lent begins with the Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. But we shall also remember that he was led by the Spirit into this place and experience. The Holy Spirit will take us with Jesus into a place where we have no food, no water, and no shelter. There we shall be asked to face both God our Heavenly Father and Satan’s opposition to His will. There, with Jesus, we must face our temptations and ask Jesus to help us to conquer them. It will help if we keep a journal or notes. We must honestly face our temptations when they arise, jot them down, describe them, find where they come from, and give them over our spiritual poverty to the Lord for destruction. This exercise will help us to conquer the sin they all lead to with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Lent should be a time of quiet stillness in the desert. We should know that Jesus is with us and wants to help us to resist temptation and cleave to His powerful goodness.
Today we prepare to go up to Jerusalem. We pray to go up to the Jerusalem of Jesus’ Cross. In Lent, we shall follow Jesus up to the great city of the Jewish Kings to accompany Jesus into His unearned, unmerited, and wholly undeserved rejection, torture, suffering and death. We shall follow Jesus up to that experience that we, as fallen creatures, could never endure. Jesus is the Holy Child of God. Jesus is the Son of God made man. As man, He goes up to Jerusalem to do a work for us what we could never sustain. He will take on sin, death, and Satan. He will be tempted again to reject God the Father, to choose the evil over the good, and to abandon His mission and calling to win our salvation. He will be tempted at the point of extreme remove from God to say no to God and yes to Himself. On the Cross, as in the wilderness, Jesus will be with God and Satan alone. He will be attacked by all demons that threaten His relationship to God the Father. He will say no to Satan. In the nothingness of His death, He will begin to remold, refashion, and recreate the universe. In the place of his own annihilation, He will become the Creator and Redeemer God from the Tree of Calvary.
Today we rehearse the age-old custom of The Imposition of Ashes. Ashes will be imposed on our foreheads, and we shall hear the words, Remember O Man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis iii:19). The words, taken from the First Book of Moses Genesis, remind us that our bodies were molded and fashioned from the dust of the earth. These words humble us. They remind us that are corruptible, that we all shall die and return to the earth, and that we are fallen and sinful also. But in God’s presence, we are reminded that we need another kind of death, a spiritual death, the kind of death that we must die with Jesus on His Cross of Calvary. We shall be reminded that we must die to the world, the flesh, and the devil, in and through Jesus Christ. We must go to Calvary to see the vision of a new death that becomes the seedbed of our new life.
Lent doesn’t end in death. Lent is all about a death that will lead us into new and Resurrected Life. We repent to believe. We believe to follow. We follow to die and then to rise up into new life. Lent is part and parcel of our return to God through Jesus Christ’s Cross and beyond. Lent is about becoming partakers of His all-sufficient sacrifice on Calvary’s Cross so that we might ingest and imbibe the food and drink of His Sacred Love, His Body and Blood, that give us the strength to die to sin and come alive to righteousness.
Today we pray that we shall look forward to Christ and His Cross and not back. We look forward to Lent as a time of fasting and abstinence. We look forward to Lent as a time of pilgrimage with Jesus to His Cross. We look forward to Lent as a time of journeying into our death to sin and our coming alive to righteousness. The old gods and our old sinful ways must be left behind. We must face our temptations. We must confront the stubborn and hard rocks of our old sinful selves. In the stillness, we must ask Jesus to assist us in our spiritual warfare. We must ask Jesus to enable us to sit still even in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation so that, with Him, we may embrace the power and submit to the Wisdom of our Heavenly Father.
Remember the words of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday.”
“Because I do not hope to turn again…” This is how it begins. He hopes not to turn back and into a world of sin, illusions, lies, and false gods.
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
He then turns to Mother Church and commits his soul to her rule and governance as he begins his Lenten pilgrimage.
Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
February 21, 2007 ©wjsmartin