Saturday, February 13, 2010

Homily: Ash Wednesday (17 Feb 2010)

Homily: Ash Wednesday (17 Feb 2010)
(Isaiah 58:1-12/Psalm 51:1-17/2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10/Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)
The Grand Joke

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy:
Come, let us adore him.

The older I get, the less I need reminding: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I know this. I reckon it in the calendar: fewer years ahead than behind. I see it in the mirror: more wrinkles around the eyes, less hair but more gray in what little remains. I feel it in my bones: a certain stiffness in the mornings and aches on rainy days. No, I need no further reminder of human entropy – the winding down and wearing out of mortality – than what I experience each day; I’m reminded of my dusty origin and end already in far too many ways.

What I really need – and perhaps you do, too, regardless of your age – is a reminder that dust isn’t truly the end, that “you are dust and to dust you shall return” will not be the final word spoken to me or over me. What I really need is a reminder that “though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4:16, NKJV). And Ash Wednesday with its imposition of ashes provides just that needed reminder.

There is a grand joke built right into the solemn ritual of Ash Wednesday; if you “get it” – really get it – it’s hard to keep from laughing with joy during service, or perhaps it’s hard to keep from weeping with gratitude. As all kneel in preparation for the imposition of ashes the minister’s prayer recalls how Almighty God created man out of the dust of the earth and asks God, in part, that the “ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence” (BCP 265). A bit later, the minister signs each member on the forehead with those ashes saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words and the action they narrate ought to be accompanied by a sly wink and a little grin; taken together they are the grand joke of Ash Wednesday. Yes, the ashes may be – and should be – a sign of our mortality and penitence and a reminder of the dust from whence we came and to which we will return. But, they are traced on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. And that is the punch line of the grand joke: a joke at the expense of death and mortality, of sin and destruction. Death tries its best to return humankind to dust and ashes, but Jesus stoops down and traces in our dust and ashes the sign of the cross, and the Creator once again forms man from the dust of the earth and breaths into him the breath of life – the Spirit of Life – and he rises in newness of life unto the ages of ages, bearing on his forehead the seal of the cross. St. Paul got the joke and – I suspect – laughed and wept his way through his great resurrection doxology:

54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “ O Death, where is your sting?

O Hades, where is your victory?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:54-57, NKJV).

I know that Ash Wednesday is the portal to Lent, a time of intense penitence and ascesis/discipline. I will fast with the Church. I will pray with the Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” knowing that my sin is responsible for the evil and death in the world in ways I cannot even imagine. I will repent with the Church and beg God to reveal to me just as much of my sin as I am able to bear, and to grant me true repentance and amendment of life. I will immerse myself in the Word with the Church and give alms with the Church. I will, as God gives me grace, keep a holy Lent with the Church, as will you. But as serious as all this is, as solemn as is the season, from time to time I think I will break out in laughter, because I know the grand joke of Ash Wednesday. The dust and ashes of my mortality – and yours – is sealed with the life-giving cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember that you are the son or daughter of God – sealed with the cross of our Lord Jesus – and that to God and to life you shall return.

St. John tells the story of a woman taken in adultery and accused publicly before Jesus. (St. John’s gospel is the only one to record this episode and there are textual issues which lead many scholars to question its authenticity and many to reject it outright. It doesn’t appear in some modern translations of the Bible and, where it does, it is often bracketed and footnoted as of questionable origin. But it is vintage Jesus, and I refuse to part with it.)

The scribes and Pharisees drag this woman – who is really, to them, only bait for their latest “Jesus trap” – right into the precincts of the temple where Jesus is teaching. As I visualize it they shove her down dismissively onto the dusty courtyard where she huddles in fear and shame while they turn to Jesus.

“Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him (John 8:4b-6a, NKJV).

But Jesus pretended not even to hear them: would that we could more often turn a deaf ear to the sins of others! He stooped down and wrote on the ground, in the dust and ashes of that courtyard. When the scribes and Pharisees pressed him further for a judgment he gave it: He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone (cf John 8:7). And then he stooped down and wrote again in the dust and ashes. It’s all a great mystery, of course, just what Jesus wrote. But, whatever it was, it replaced condemnation with forgiveness and death with new life. Whatever he wrote, this much is true: Jesus stooped down to the dust and ashes of that poor woman’s life and with his finger traced in them the sign of his life-giving cross and she was born again. I wonder how often after that day she laughed with joy or wept with gratitude at the grand joke played on death that day.

In a moment I will say to each of you, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” as I trace in ashes upon your forehead the sign of the cross. It’s all very solemn. But, I’ll understand if you grin a little or shed a tear of grace. It is, after all, a grand joke. Amen.

[1] While we will read the appointed lections, I plan to address them only tangentially and to focus, instead, on a different aspect of Ash Wednesday using St. John’s account of the woman taken in adultery.


Anonymous said...

Right Reverend Roop well done. Peace of Christ, Gary

John Roop + said...

Thank you, my good friend and dear brother.

Grace and peace,