This is the text of the sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14, at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin.
What an odd, odd day. Ash Wednesday is odd enough in itself, but when it falls on Valentine’s it’s even more odd. Many of my clergy friends have been making the most of this strange calendric convergence. One posted on Facebook this imaginary conversation: “So, what are your Valentine’s Day plans?” “Oh, I have to work and remind everyone that they’re going to die.” Another toyed with the idea of plastering the sign of the cross on her parishioner’s foreheads with melted chocolate. I, on the other hand, have been threatening to make an ashen heart on your foreheads.
While Valentine’s Day takes its name from two separate Christian martyrs who were both executed in the 3rd century A.D. by the Roman emperor Claudius II, the holiday has come to extol romantic love — it’s the day to send chocolates or roses to your true love, or to the one you hope will become your true love.
Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, seems to be the exact opposite. It’s not a party, but the definition of a non-party. The Old Testament lesson from Joel blows a trumpet to announce the darkness of sin and suffering. Joel urges the ancient people of God and us, all of us, from nursing infants to the most aged among us to come before God and pay attention to those things that are most important — our sin, our mortality, our need for divine forgiveness, and the accompanying assurance that God is merciful.
Ash Wednesday calls us to face the harsh and precious reality that each of us was molded by the hand of God out of the elements of creation and each of us will once again become those elements. Yet we don’t speak of this reality in a cold or clinical way like we might approach a cadaver in a morgue. We do so with a sense of wonder, and again, with a eye to the promises of God. The ashes we allow to be inscribed on our foreheads are understood as symbols of our frail mortality and certain death. The ashes point beyond themselves to a hidden life-giving power.
For a few years before moving to Door County, Sheryl and I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands Nature Conservancy Prairie Preserve. It’s a project in western Illinois that now encompasses nearly 4000 acres and is being returned to its original state as a biologically diverse grasslands. Key to that restoration is the annual controlled burning in the spring of the year. Regular burning is a necessary step in the health and vitality of the prairie. The heat germinates certain seeds and clears the way for others to sprout and grow.
Here is the paradoxical truth of Ash Wednesday. The loving presence of God is hidden in the dust and ashes that dominate this day. Far deeper than the romantic love of Valentine’s Day and chocolates and roses, God comes to us with a love that rescues us from our violent ways with each other, from the limits of our mortality, and promises life that endures beyond our death.
See, the season of Lent that we begin today is going somewhere. Where? We’re headed to Easter, that grand celebration of death that gets turned into life. There’s this part of the communion liturgy we call the Proper Preface. It comes right after the opening sentences. You’ll recognize it because it begins, “It is indeed our duty and delight that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, almighty and merciful God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And then it goes on in poetic language to tie this eucharistic celebration to the themes of the church year. I kind of miss the old one for lent; they changed it in this new hymnal; the old one proclaimed that where death began, life will be restored and that the Evil One who by a tree once overcame will likewise by a tree be overcome. That infamous apple tree of the Garden of Eden will be superseded by a cross-shaped tree on a gruesome hill outside Jerusalem; there the possibility of life with God was born. Indeed, dear church, because we are so truthful today about our mortality, the promise of resurrection is all the more sweet.
This is an odd day, this Ash Wednesday, made all the more odd by the juxtaposition with Valentine’s Day. But then ours is an odd faith, a faith that began in the dust and ashes of a borrowed tomb, a grave, a place of death. That womb of dust and ash and death was the resting place of Christ who loved the world all the way to death on a cross.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are the words that will be spoken over you in a matter of minutes. Your life is fleeting. The clock is ticking. But the mark of the cross reminds you that there is so much more. Death gives way to the life that was promised at your baptism. Ashes are not forever. Endings always call up new beginnings. Now, even now, in the midst of dust and ashes on this day of love, it is a day of deep grace, the day of our salvation.