Our Ash Wednesday service at RCLPC is canceled/postponed due to severe weather. Please stay home and off the roads, stay warm and safe, and contemplate your mortality without risking early death just to come to church!
Rev. Teri Peterson
Dust and Ashes
RCLPC—Ash Wednesday 2008
Ashes are an interesting thing. Sometimes they remind us of fun and friends gathered around a campfire, or of an evening spent with hot cocoa and a book in front of a fireplace. For those of us from the Pacific Northwest, ashes bring up memories of Mount Saint Helens. For some of us, ashes remind us of loved ones who are no longer with us, but whose ashes now grace a garden, a columbarium, a beach, or an ocean.
Ashes don’t come up in our lives very often anymore, I don’t think. Central heat and gas fireplaces have removed daily reminders of ashes. Those experiences of scattering ashes are relatively few and far between. In fact, since last Ash Wednesday, I’ve only touched fireplace ashes, and those only once. And last year at this time I was contemplating the fact that the last ashes I’d touched had been my mother’s. No, ashes don’t come up very often at all.
But when they do come up, it’s startling. The biblical images of dust and ashes seem very real when ashes are in our hands or on our heads—there is something stark about ashes, something final. Whatever it was before—a house, a log, a person, some palm leaves—there’s nothing left but dust, so easily blown away.
This isn’t a popular line of thinking—in fact, it leads straight to the simple fact, pointed out several times in scripture, that we were created from the dust and we’re headed back to the dust, no exceptions. In our culture we’d rather be figuring out how to stay young forever than pondering our mortality. But the fact remains—the fact that we proclaim just this once each year: from dust we came, and to dust we shall return. Just this once each year we are invited to put on the dust and ashes from which we are made, and we are invited to remember and to repent.
Like ashes, repenting is not a popular thing and it doesn’t come up very often. But when it does, it’s stark and real and there’s no getting away from it. Dust and ashes remind us that we are not in control, that we can’t stay young forever, that without God’s breath in us we would be only a pile of earth. They bring us face to face with our pride, with our failure to live gratefully, with our propensity for injustice. In scripture, the ash heap is where the poor and needy and sinful live and where God will raise people up to new life. Ashes are what people put on their heads when they recognize wrong and need to repent. Ashes are a symbol not only of death, but of new life.
Tonight we enter a season of ashes, of growing darkness, of repenting. To repent does not mean to feel guilty, it means to turn—both to turn away from sin, whatever it may be, and to turn toward God. Isaiah and Jesus both entreat the people to turn away from their showy productions of worship and to turn toward the calling God has for them to do justice and to show compassion. God calls us to forsake our love of darkness and turn toward the light. It’s hard work—the darkness is comfortable and attractive. We know what to expect, we can control the outcomes, we can feel secure. Light can be blinding, light can expose us and the things we like to keep hidden, light can be frightening.
But this light, and these ashes, are full of love. We may be only dust, blowing in the wind, but God’s steadfast love endures forever. We may not want ourselves exposed to the light, but God’s steadfast love is stronger than whatever we are hiding. So tonight you are invited to turn away from sin and to turn toward the light, to put ashes on your head and to remember they are a symbol of both death and the new life found in God. We are invited together to re-orient ourselves, to hear once again God’s call to us in our darkness, to journey to the cross and on to the empty tomb, into the light.
May it be so. Amen.