“Ashes to Ashes” – An Ash Wednesday Homily

AshcrossSometimes I’m surprised anyone shows up for Ash Wednesday worship.

I mean, think of the primary message of this day, what I said to you when you received ashes and what you heard me recite over and over to others: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

In other words, “You’re going to die.”

But we’re here anyway.

Sometimes we talk about how Christianity is counter-cultural.  When we follow Christ we often walk against the prevailing direction of our culture.

There is no more counter-cultural occasion in the life of the church than Ash Wednesday.  In her opening monologue at last Sunday’s Academy Awards, Ellen Degeneres said, “I’m not saying movies are the most important thing in the world because we all know the most important thing in the world is youth.”  I don’t think that quip is just reflective of the Hollywood community.  Although we might not go to the multiple-plastic surgeries extent that was on display Sunday, we are part of a culture that can be obsessed with staying young and denying the reality of aging . . and especially the reality of death.

But on Ash Wednesday we gather to confront the reality that our bodies are perishable vessels that will not last forever . . . at least not in this fallen form.

But we’re here anyway

Another hallmark of our culture is affirmation.  We watch television personalities, or even pay big money to hear motivational speakers, who tell us how lovable and capable we are, who feed our desire to believe we have what it takes within us to be the best people we can be.  “Self-help” books are always featured prominently on the best seller list.

But on Ash Wednesday we gather to be reminded that the Bible is not shelved with the self-help books because its message is ultimately that we can’t help ourselves.  Today we confess that we are sinful to the core and sinners from the start – in the words of Psalm 51 we heard earlier,  “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

But we’re here anyway.

As we confess our sins and our sinfulness on Ash Wednesday, we don’t even get to hear that we are forgiven.  We begin almost every other service of the year with our words of corporate confession, followed immediately by the pronouncement of forgiveness in the pastor’s words of absolution.  But not today.  Today our confession was different than our usual Sunday morning rite; not only was it longer but its breadth and depth were far greater.  “We have not loved you . . . we have been unfaithful . . . we have not forgiven others .  . . we have been self-indulgent . . . we have been negligent in worship, “ and on and on.  Those words of contrition were allowed to linger, burning our consciences without the balm of absolution.

Pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber has written that the confession is the most honest part of the liturgy because it acknowledges who we really are.  But perhaps today’s confession is for you, as it is for me, painfully honest.

But we’re here anyway.

Thank God we are here.  Thank God we gather on this holy day.  Thank God we have this opportunity to be counter-cultural, to remember who we were – who we are – without God’s grace and forgiveness.  For it is only in acknowledging our desperate condition, our inability to save ourselves and our inability to even desire salvation without the prompting of the Holy Spirit . . . it is only in acknowledging  our powerlessness and our helplessness  that we can appreciate – that is much too weak a word – that we can rejoice in what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.

Perhaps “rejoice” is a strange word to hear in an Ash Wednesday homily.  But it is to rejoicing that our penitence ultimately leads.  The point is not – it cannot be – just to beat ourselves up with our failures and our failings.  The point is not – it cannot be – to wallow in the despair of our condition as fallen sinners.  Out of our honest humility comes sincere thankfulness and praise and, yes, rejoicing.

No wonder we’re here!

Ash Wednesday is just the beginning of a journey.  We set out on this Lenten journey together marked not just with ashes that remind us of our sin-stained mortality, but marked with those ashes in the shape of a cross.  That mark is a reminder of another cross smeared on our forehead; when you were baptized a pastor used oil-not-ash to make the cross on you and called you by name, saying, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

The cross of Christ has overcome all of our sins and our sinfulness.  No matter how hard we try to mess ourselves up, the cross of Christ puts us right.  All of our failures and our regrets and our self-delusions and all the other ways we have let God and ourselves down, and all the ways we continue to fall short, all of that has lost its power over us.  All of that garbage was nailed to the cross, the cross to which we will journey during these 40 days.

No wonder we’re here!

Ash Wednesday is vital, a word which at its root means “life-giving.” To fully grasp the new life we receive through Christ, we must realize that we were truly dead in our sins.  We acknowledge that we are not just sinners but also hypocrites, that we are not the paragons of virtue we try to convince others – and ourselves – that we are.  As Martin Luther said, “God does not forgive fictitious sinners.”  It is only real, honest-to-goodness sinners who need the cross.

Sinners like us.

No wonder we’re here!

We begin our Lenten journey today with honest confession and a reminder of our mortality.  We will spend the next 40 days encouraged to take a good look at ourselves, and to call on the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out because we can’t do it ourselves. 

And we do rejoice . . . we rejoice that God loves us anyway.  We rejoice that no matter who we are and what we have done, the cross is for us.

No wonder we’re here!

We focus on sin and death on Ash Wednesday.  But those crosses on our foreheads reminds us also that sin and death were defeated at Calvary.  Through the grace of God that victory was our victory; and because Christ lived and died and rose again, you and I can experience new life abundant in God’s blessing right now.  Lent is an opportunity to begin anew, to recapture the reality of God’s power and presence in our lives, and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to live out our baptismal identity as children of God for the sake of the world.

What a blessing it is to begin this journey with you!

Sometimes I’m surprised anyone chooses to miss Ash Wednesday worship.


(Based on a homily preached  at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville, March 5, 2014.)

About pastordavesimpson

I'm an unexpected pastor. Why unexpected? Because no one is more surprised than me that I'm a pastor. See the "About" page on my blog for more info.
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