February 18, 2021
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.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians: 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
When I was recovering from surgery this time last year I could chart my progress by what I was watching on TV. When I was in the hospital and right when I got home, I watched a lot of the very soothing Great British Baking Show. When my mind cleared a bit, I turned to Stephen Fry’s odd game show QI, with its quiet, understated, eccentric, erudite humour. As I got better, I could watch shows with a plot, and by the time I was watching Law & Order: S.V.U., I knew it was time to get back to work.
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I have developed a soft spot for reruns of S.V.U. and Criminal Intent, and just the other day there was an episode of the latter in which an alibi hinged on Ash Wednesday ashes. The detectives were able to prove that a suspect had been in church on Ash Wednesday and clear him, as they found the cross shaped residue of ashes inside his ski cap. In the discussion that ensued, one of the detectives casually remarked that it was important to Catholics not to wash off the ashes, and to keep them for as long as possible. I smiled to myself and immediately though about the Gospel appointed for today that reminds us that, “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret.” Indeed, I was always taught that taking on the ashes was much more important than wearing them for everyone to see.
This year that will not be a problem for most people. This is the year of Ash Wednesday without the general imposition of ashes. Priests all over have wracked their brains about how we might safely distribute the ashes we usually smear with our thumb on people’s foreheads. My colleagues and I came up with many ideas, all elaborate and overly complicated, in a genuine effort to keep us all safe. In the end, most of us decided that it was safest if we don’t impose ashes this year, either in church, or “Ashes-To-Go”-style, as has become fashionable in many places. In the end, I came to believe that experiencing an Ash Wednesday without the imposition of ashes was, perhaps, an opportunity to look at this symbol and better understand what we are actually doing as we begin this season of Lent: to try and understand what it is that we are actually taking on for these days that lie ahead of us between now and Easter.
Although the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a powerful symbol, the church has never considered it to be a sacrament in the same way as Baptism, Eucharist, or Holy Unction, the three traditional Catholic sacraments associated with both touch and an elemental material. The water of Baptism, bread of the Eucharist, or the oil of Unction, all administered at the hand of a priest, are outward and visible expressions of Jesus’ special presence with us and the inward grace they impart. The ashes—historically made from the burnt remains of the palm fronds blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday—are a symbol of the earth to which our bodies return when we die, of what our own bodies become in death as they decay and are reincorporated into the ground, mixed with all the other elements of creation. “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” They are a poetic reminder that we are connected with all things in creation, in many ways inseparable from the stuff of the cosmos, and, at the same time human, mortal, and specifically not, as we will hear the serpent tempt Adam and Eve this coming Sunday, divine, like God or some gods. The ashes are not a localisation of grace, or of the love of God, into the present moment. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are like a slap in the face, a wake-up call to our fragility, our imperfection, our limitations. It is something we take on as part of our own spiritual practice at the beginning of Lent as we make our preparations to celebrate the gift that God has given us in the Paschal Mystery that we shall celebrate at the end of this season.
The detective’s remarks on Law & Order about how people feel the need to wear and, more importantly, show the ashes to the world were an apt observation. It has been drilled into many that we are to carry the ashes as a badge to outwardly demonstrate our faith to others. But that’s not the point. We need not show them to the world for us to “remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” We can bear this reminder without showing the ashes, as we set out upon an intentional period of reflection and transformation.
Rather than focus upon the ashes, keeping the ashes, holding onto them—as Peter wanted to hold onto that moment on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured and met Moses and Elijah and build those booths—we should see those ashes as the first step that they are. They are the beginning of our Lenten journey of repentance, of that metanoia that John the Baptist and Jesus preached, that will transform us, allow us to become more than ourselves, accept our imperfections, the mortality of our flesh, and still enter into a relationship with God and with each other that is truly life giving.
On this Ash Wednesday without ashes, when we may have feelings about not receiving that smudge on our forehead, not wearing it for others to see, we can receive comfort and inspiration from today’s Gospel; for what does Jesus advise us to do? “Beware of practising your piety before men in order to be seen by them.” Jesus goes even further and reminds us:
And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Wash your face! Anoint your head! Hold your head up high as you do the work to which you are called: to understand that within the limits of our humanity we have been called with joy and expectation to be a part of the work God has begun in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.
Indeed, today’s lessons are filled with that clarity and sense of joy that can come with fasting, the sense of opportunity, of potential, of the possibilities that become open to us.
Blow the trumpet in Zion [Joel tells us]; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.
Our starting place is a reminder of who we are—but dust. Our starting place is not meant to make us feel bad or ashamed. We are humiliated only in being reminded that we come from that humus, that ground, earth, of which our word is made. We are explicitly reminded that human as we are, we have cause to rejoice, to see the way ahead as hopeful, as leading to God’s victory over the forces of evil and death that limit us, that keep us from perfecting our humanity and participating in the life of God.
In the Epistle we are told that we have come to a crossroads, to a moment when we are to make a choice:
Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in any one’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labours, watching, hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute.
As ever with God, nothing is easy, nothing is simply handed to us, but what awaits us when we take on the work of fasting, this work of accepting our humanity that God sets before us is truly eternal life that transcends all the ashes and dust. To all the world, we may look like fools, tilting at windmills, but in reality something else is happening.
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
The transformation upon which we embark in Lent can lead us to extraordinary places in our mortal lives. It can shift us and align all our work with the work of God, and in and through the hardships we may face along the way, all the ashes of sin, disease, and death, we anoint our heads and wash our faces and keep moving in the direction of that Resurrection life that awaits us on the other side of our Easter.
This Ash Wednesday, I have the privilege of taking on the ashes for our community. I hope that when I said those words, first to myself and then to William, that you said them to yourselves at home. You can still do that if you haven’t: Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust you shalt return. It is true. What I promise you, is that after this service I shall wash my face and turn with joy to the work of Lent, of repentance, and of transformation and I commend you do the same, whether you have soot on your foreheads or not.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Thomas Bray, priest and missionary, 15 February 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume