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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

Ash Wednesday
25 February 2009

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Stephen Harding

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those 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 thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 103
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

When I visited one of the Firefighters who jumped out of the window in the Bronx four years ago, he had a sign in the window of his ICU room at the hospital.  The sign read, “When in doubt, look up.”

I say to you now, “Look up….  Look.  Up.”  Look up and see Christ’s crucifixion.  Look up and see his suffering and death on the beam above.  Look up and see Him, dying.  Look up and see his mother there.  Look at her.  Look at the other people up there with Him, and remember His death.

In American football, only the tip of the ball has to break the plane of the goal line in order to score a touchdown.  The plane of the goal line extends up – all you have to do is to break that plane with a fraction of an inch in order to score.

Jesus’ suffering on the Cross and His death are located directly above the Communion rail  in our church.  What this means is that the plane of Christ’s crucifixion and his death extends down directly over the Communion rail and that in some sense, the altar party is on one side of His death, and you are on the other side.  It’s a powerful thought, that we are currently divided by the plane of the Cross and by Christ’s death on it. 

When you come forward to make your Communion, your hands break the plane of death when you extend them forward to receive the Sacrament.  Our hands break the plane of death from the other side as we extend them to you.   And it is there, in the middle of the plane of Christ’s death, that our hands meet and the Sacrament is exchanged.

One could say that the presence of the Sacrament shatters the plane of death; on this Ash Wednesday, I remind you that the plane of Christ’s death is the context in which we meet each other through the Presence of the living God.

This year, going through Ash Wednesday feels as though I am going through a small portal, one that doesn’t allow any of the things that aren’t true about me to fit through.  I have the sense of being stripped of all the things that are false about me, and of standing or kneeling before God without hiding. 

This is an intensely vulnerable place for me to be, and yet, I have such a deep longing to be there and nowhere else.

There is a famous painting – I have no doubt at all that the Rector can tell me who painted it – but in my ignorance, all I can do is describe it to you.  It’s of the prodigal son’s return home.  There he is, kneeling.  His feet are bare…He is dressed in rags…and you can tell by looking at him that he has had a hard time.  He kneels there, not expecting anything good to come his way, and it’s all he can do not to fall over.

Rushing to embrace him is his father, dressed well.  And the father’s arms are reaching out to embrace his son and to enfold him:  to hold his son close.  And safe.  The love, the protectiveness, the relief that his son has come back and the profound sense of receiving back a part of himself is displayed by this artist’s rendition of the father welcoming his son – his own son - back.(1)

At the end of our Lenten journeys, we return to Christ’s death upon the Cross.  I have no idea  where your journeys in Lent will take you, nor do I know yet where mine will take me. 

I do know this:  no matter where you go, whether internally or externally, the God who loves you will be there with you to support you every step of the way.  For we believe in a God of forgiveness and of love, and when I stand before God without hiding, I know that I am loved and wanted and desired by God in the same way that Rembrandt portrays the father embracing his son.

Lent is a time of discovery, of journeys to be with God.  Remember that your journeys will end with Christ’s death – and beyond His death, they will end with His resurrection on Easter Day, when we will remember that we, too, have shattered death by being part of Christ..

There are beautiful words written in the Prayer Book for this service tonight.  If you want to read them later, you can find them on page 264.  They go like this:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. (BCP, 1979, p.265)

May God bless you on your journeys this Lent.  May God be with you and support you in your faith. 

I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent. 

I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent. 


+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

The Reverend Stephen Harding
Priest Associate


(1) I found out much later that the artist is Rembrandt, and the painting is called ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’.

Return of the Prodigal Son

Return of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1668
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


© 2009 Stephen Harding