By Rev. Heather Blais, Rector
From Psalm 51
Open my lips, O Lord, *
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
These words from Psalm 51 appear in two important places in our prayer book. The first is in a five page section called, Daily Devotions for Families and Individuals where they are used to start morning prayer. Words worth remembering as we start our day with God.Yet we will also pray these words momentarily as a part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Words worth remembering as we seek to renew our relationship with Christ by our observance of a holy Lent, a season dedicated to self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
To mark the beginning of this season, we will wear ashes on our foreheads in the form of a cross.The ashes are a sign of our mortality, penitence, and in particular, they are a sign of God’s love for us. The ashes are made from palms that were prayed over and blessed on Palm Sunday.
And there is an art to making them. First you have to burn the palms down to small pieces. Sometimes the bits will remain rough and thick instead of a fine powder. Then begins the very messy task of grinding the bits of rough, ashy palm into a fine ash powder which results in ashes all over the counter, all over one’s clothes, and really all over anything near by.
The art of making ashes is messy business.Yet so are our lives. We didn’t come here today to be reminded of what has gone wrong in our lives this past year. As the psalmist wrote, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (51:3).
Instead we are here for the assurance that our misdeeds have not separated us from the love of God. As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his book, How Good Do We Have to Be?
“There seems to be something in the human soul that causes us to think less of ourselves everytime we do something wrong. It may be the result of parents who expected too much of us, or of teachers who took for granted what we did right and fastened instead on everything we got wrong. And maybe it is good for us to feel that way. It may make us more sensitive to what we do wrong and move us to repent and grow. But it may also lead to our setting unrealistically high standards for ourselves and for others…[religion] tries to wash us clean of disappointment in ourselves, with the liberating message that God finds us worthy of His love” (6-7).
We have gathered here today be cleansed, to lean into the forgiveness and love that God so abundantly offers us. In doing so we are ready to begin our Lenten pilgrimage that will take us to many unexpected places, yet will culminate on the cross and inside an empty tomb, with the joy of Easter.
In just a few moments, you will be invited to come forward for the imposition of ashes.And as we make the sign of the cross with those messy ashes, so symbolic of our messy lives, we will say to you “Remember that you are dust, and to that dust you shall return.”
This is not a condemnation. This is a reminder of God’s love and forgiveness for us. It is a reminder that from the beginning God has been with us, forming us from the dust, and throughout our life and death we are with God. God is with us, loving us, forgiving us, yearning for renewed relationship with us. This Lent is a season for us to grapple with the forgiveness and love that God so freely gives us, because in spite of all our imperfections God loves us anyways. God loves us beyond measure.
Our Bishop has taken to anointing people with oil at the beginning of holy week and saying these words, “Remember that you are love, and to that love you shall return.” Yet to be made from the dust of the earth, is to be made of God’s Love, and so when we return to that dust, we are returning to God’s Love. A journey we will make not just in our birth and death, but many times over throughout our lives. This Lent, may we each find ourselves returning to God’s love. Amen.
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