I hope you will forgive a self-indulgent prologue to tonight’s sermon:
I have had a difficult start to 2012. My Father-in-law died on the 2nd January, I was asked to take the funeral, which proved to be a great privilege, but also very time consuming, complicated and emotionally draining. Then at the start of this month my mother was taken into hospital with a litany of medical problems. Our family has struggled through the start of the year. But ours are not the only problems: our own community here at the Ascension has been struggling with three people known to us dying very recently, many illnesses (several of them serious), a house-fire, and unpleasant break-ins at the Wash House Youth Club.
Traditionally Ash Wednesday liturgy focuses on the transient nature of human life, with ash smeared on our foreheads to remind us that we come from dust and will all too soon return back to dust once more. I do think there is a real value on reflecting on our mortality, but I have done a lot of that this year already, and I feel we have all done a lot of that already in 2012.
For our forbears in the faith, the primary purpose of Lent was a gloomy, miserable season in which they gave up something they enjoyed in order to prepare themselves for eternal life. This kind of salvation required turning their back on the joys of ‘the flesh’ and the supposedly shallow beauties of the earth. So in Lent faithful Christians turned away from the material world and trained their eyes on heaven. They used the season to forsake time for eternity. It is true that human life is fragile fraught with difficulties and short. Life is a risky business, and to quote Jim Morrison of the Doors “no one gets out of here alive.”
But is ‘salvation’ about ‘escaping this world of perpetual perishing’ or is it more about ‘seeing everlasting beauty in each passing moment?’
I think our spirituality should treasure the natural world, not despise or reject it. The natural world has lessons to teach us if we have ears to hear. For example:
After the Big Bang, scientists believe that the only elements that existed were hydrogen and helium (the lightest and simplest elements). No carbon or metal or any complex elements. Then these atoms of hydrogen and helium slowly clustered over unimaginable aeons of time the clusters became enormous balls of matter that had so much gravity that the atoms were pulled apart in a nuclear reaction, and the universe’s first generation of stars sprung to light.
All of the heavy elements that exist in the universe – metals, and the carbon of our bodies (and of the ashes that we will use soon in this service) was created in the heart of the first generation of stars.
So when I put ashes on your head tonight, and say the traditional words, “remember that you are dust…” by all means reflect on your mortality, but also “remember you are stardust…”
Our human bodies that we so often feel ashamed of (or are made to feel ashamed of) are the stuff of stars, made by God, loved by God, inhabited by God.
This Lent some of us do need more humility; but more of us need to learn to stand tall and not be ashamed: regardless of gender, sexuality, race, disability, social status, education: you are stardust. You are a child of God. You matter.
This Ash Wednesday, I want to let go of everything that keeps me from rejoicing in the passing beauty of the earth. Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing out from a multi-billion-year holy adventure. Dust is good, after all; it is the place where life can grow, of moist dark soil. We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.
So this Ash Wednesday, let’s consider the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air. The ashes I’ll put on the foreheads of those who want it will be the ashes of transformation, of awakening to beauty and love, of seizing the moment.
The traditional words of the imposition of ashes ask us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’ the sin I want us to turn away from is the sin of failing to appreciate the beauty around us, of denying the good news that our lives are strange and sometimes difficult, but life is also wonderful and beautiful.