“Ashes and Chocolate”
A Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2018
By the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
For the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday has fallen on Valentine’s Day. This creates a dilemma for countless Christians. How can we honor a solemn day of repentance while celebrating a day that glorifies romantic love? Today is one of only two days of obligatory fasting in the Episcopal Church – the other being Good Friday. So, the question is – Do we fast and honor Ash Wednesday or pop the champagne, eat chocolate and celebrate Valentine’s Day?
But if we step back and think about it, there is a strong correlation between Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. Both speak of love. Ash Wednesday is the most penetrating service of the entire Christian year. Christians have used ashes in church to symbolize a day of repentance since the 9th century. It is a day when we look in the mirror and wrestle with the hard truths about ourselves, who we are, what we are doing and how our actions have affected others.
Ash Wednesday is a day that tells us that we are going to die. Maybe not tonight or tomorrow, but someday. Our life is relatively brief. We often postpone doing things that truly matter. We race through life to achieve success in our profession, raise our children, save for retirement, travel and develop hobbies. Eventually, we will take time to get serious about our faith.
But the ashes that will soon be imposed on our foreheads are intended to be a funeral for our self-absorption, our fantasies of having it all together or believing that we can discover a lasting inner peace on our own. Death teaches us that we are not in control. We are not immortal, and we ourselves are not God. Death teaches us that all that we have is today, this moment in time.
I took a course in seminary that greatly shaped my ministry. It was called “Death, Dying and Bereavement.” Our professor was Ed Dobihal, a man who helped to bring the hospice movement to the United States. Ed was critically ill. Halfway through each seminar, an alarm clock sounded, and Ed took his medications. Ed had a teaching assistant in case he had another heart attack and died before the semester ended. Knowing that our teacher was close to death made our course seem even more poignant and powerful. One day, we asked Ed what it was like to know that he was near death. He said, “It makes each sunrise and every day extraordinary. I take nothing for granted anymore. Everything is a gift.”
Indeed, death is the great teacher. In her book Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott writes about how she came to be a writer. Lamott had a close friend who was dying of cancer and a mutual friend told her to learn from her friend who was dying. “Watch her carefully,” the friend said, “because as she is dying, she’s teaching you how to live.”
I’ve watched a lot of people die. I visited a man in hospice care yesterday. His family and I gathered around his bedside and prayed. A little over an hour later, he died and began the journey from this world to the next. I have seen families sobbing, grieving, laughing, sharing love in the most tender of ways, holding hands and caressing cheeks.
They say that there are only two things that are certain in life – death and paying taxes. Perhaps a more honest assessment is that we will all die and in the meantime we will mess up a lot. These are life’s two greatest certainties. That brings me to my second point.
The first point is that death is the ultimate teacher for it teaches us that our life is finite. Life is a gift and each moment should count. The second lesson of Ash Wednesday is that if we are truly going to live, then we have some serious work to do. When ashes are imposed on our foreheads, we will hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Today, when we repent of all the things that we aren’t doing right, we confess our sins and say that over the next 40 days we are going to try to do better. We will set a new course to turn our lives around.
The crowds at church are always far smaller on Ash Wednesday than they are on Easter Sunday. Death and sin are never big draws. Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “I think that it is safe to say that Christians need never fear the commercialization of Ash Wednesday.” The world doesn’t understand Ash Wednesday. I think of the Episcopal priest who entered the checkout line at Staples Office Supply on Ash Wednesday, and cashier said, “Oh, sir, you have toner on your forehead!” Truly, the world doesn’t understand the meaning of ashes on our foreheads.
A friend of mine was pursuing a Ph.D. in a very secular university setting when he found himself in church on Ash Wednesday despite having no clue what the ashes signified. When the priest imposed the ashes on his forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” he was overwhelmed. “It all came crashing home,” he said, “‘I am finite, fragile, a creature who has been given these few short years to live.’ My agonizing about exactly what I believed seemed less pressing; my anxieties about where my life was going seemed a waste of time. I have been given this time now, I realized, before I return to dust, to be what I have been given to be. I was amazed by the power of a church service to tell me the truth about my life.”
Indeed, these ashes remind us that we are mortal and fallible, but never hopeless or doomed. This service illuminate what’s missing in our lives and reveals that we are not living the kind of life that we were designed to lead. We will pray, “We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness, the hypocrisy and impatience of our lives, our self-indulgent appetites and ways.” These unflattering words are like a great spiritual scalpel that probes our lives and exposes where we need to be healed. This service invites us to a season of healing and spiritual health, to take time each day for solitude and silence, prayer and fasting, reading scripture and giving alms.
Ash Wednesday is the door to Lent. Lent is a season when we slow down, recharge our hearts and minds and acknowledge what truly matters in our overstimulated lives. The ashes that are imposed on our foreheads are a sign that we are claimed by something far greater than ourselves. We are part of a huge love story that makes Valentine’s Day look like almost insignificant. The ashes that we shall wear today remind us that we are claimed by God and nothing, not even our own worst mistakes or the end of our own life, can destroy us or separate us from God.
It is our awareness of being loved that enables us to see our sin. You may remember the movie Shadowlands, about the English writer C.S. Lewis, who fell in love for the first time late in life and soon realized that the woman that he loved was dying of cancer. That experience of profound love helped him to see his life in a new light. Lewis was probably the world’s most famous Christian writer when he wrote this poem:
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am a mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I was God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, reassurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love – a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek –
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
I suspect that we have all had that experience of having a family member or friend confront us with more truth about ourselves than we had ever expected to hear. We were sailing through life until one of our children or a parent, sibling or colleague confronted us and said, “You cannot imagine how much you have imposed on others with your….” and you can fill in the blank: irresponsibility, greed, need for control, self-absorption, inability to listen, constantly being late, overspending, hoarding, being a clean freak, anger, gossip, lies, sarcasm, acting superior, etc. The list is endless. Suddenly, we feel completely naked, uncovered, caught and we see how our behavior has hurt others – people whom we love and whom we would never dream of hurting.
Ash Wednesday signals that we have much work to do. The traditional practice has always been to give something up – some food, drink, way of acting or thinking that is detrimental and to allow God to fill the vacuum of what we have stopped doing. But the prophet Isaiah calls for much more. He says, “Is not this the fast that I choose also to lose the bonds of wickedness, to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house, and when you see the naked to cover him?”
For Isaiah, keeping close to God means doing something for inner-city children in Philadelphia or visiting someone in prison or spending time with an elderly person each week to give him or her a sense of hope. It means to make a difference in some problem affecting our country or affecting those living in places like Syria, Venezuela or Puerto Rico, or knowing that racism has gotten far worse and that being part of the LGBT community has gotten much tougher.
Yes, there are some hard facts that we face today. We are mortal, and our lives are messy. We are in need of healing and some change needs to take place. Yet, our faith reminds us that through Jesus’s intervention there is no evil, no brokenness, no turning away or ignoring God that can stop God from loving us. The ashes are a visible sign that we are ready to start a journey that can change everything. They remind us of where we put our hope during these coming 40 days. The journey of Lent is not one of sorrow and gloom, but rather a journey of joy and love. We are entering Lent – a season to grow and heal and discover wholeness and holiness. Amen.