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The Cross of Ashes
a sermon based on various Scriptures
by Rev. Melinda Harwood

Today is Ash Wednesday: the first day of the penitent season of Lent. The accurate name is "The Day of Ashes" not "Ash Wednesday". The reference to ashes comes from the ceremony of placing ashes on the forehead in the shape of the cross as a sign of penitence. Pope Gregory I, who was Bishop of Rome 7th century A.D, introduced this custom.

Gardeners know that ashes can be used to help grow plants. But basically ashes are worthless. In fact they are often less than worthless - they are a hindrance and a liability. You can't make ashes pretty by painting them, and you can't make ashes smell good by spraying perfume on them. Ashes are just ashes.

And so it is with us - people are just people. When all is said and done, no matter how much righteous paint we cover ourselves with, no matter how much virtuous perfume we spray on ourselves, we are left with our thoughts and feelings and actions that aren't always our best .
So why do we bother tonight smearing ashes on our foreheads? Why do we gather and remember what we are on Ash Wednesday?

The answer is that while we gather to remember who we are, more importantly we also gather to remember who God is - and what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ.
The Bible has a number of references about ashes. The first comes in Genesis 18:27. Abraham is bargaining with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah when he suddenly realizes that he, a mere mortal, has been speaking to almighty God. He says, "I have been so bold to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes." The words "dust and ashes" are used together in Job. The Hebrew words have the same consonant sounds.

One might rightfully conclude that the word "ash" carries with it much the same theological connotation as the word "dust." Dust and ashes are also synonyms of the word "earth" (adamah). From this word we derive Adam and the Hebrew word for man. Genesis 3:19 gives us the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return." Ecclesiastes 3:20 says, "All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return." Ashes are a symbol of our mortality. We are tied to the earth and nothing in us is immortal unless God gives it to us.
Ashes are also a symbol of repentance. In Jonah 3:6, after hearing of Jonah's message of repentance, the King of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes. In those days such Kings were considered God-like. By sitting in ashes, the King of Nineveh shows his people that he is not immortal.

Originating in the book of Numbers and explained in Hebrews, ashes are used in the rites of purification. We do not believe the ashes have any power to purify us of our sin. We use them as a reminder of the cleansing power of Jesus Christ, especially when that symbol is placed upon our bodies in the form of a cross.
The question I want you to ask yourself this evening is:

"When people see me and know me, do they believe God is love?"

Something about Ash Wednesday is fascinating to us. We are intrigued to see people walking through the streets with black smudges on their foreheads. When I was a child, it seemed like it was only the Roman Catholics who "got ashed", but now the imposition of ashes has made its way into the wider church and even the popular culture.

I have heard of people who spend their whole lunch hour standing in line at a church, waiting for the ashes on their forehead, to be reminded that they are "but dust." "Fat Tuesday" revelers stop their partying and head for the churches as if to atone for their overindulgence. Hospital and nursing home patients, prison inmates, and homebound elderly all eagerly await the minister who will come with a container of palm ash. The Day of Ashes means different things for different people.

For some, it is a time of giving up or going without. It is our time to suffer and to grovel before the Lord. The penitent period of lent satisfies this part of our spiritual identity and we can grovel to our heart's content.

For others it may be a celebration of interconnectedness. "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," is said to each and every one of us: In this reframe we are the same. We are confronted with our common bond. I am consoled by the fact that all over the world, Christians are gathering today. In Tonganoxie, McLouth, Topeka, St Louis, Baton Rouge, New York, San Francisco, Bangkok, Madrid, Bejing,around the entire globe Christians are gathered.

For still others it may be that the liturgy expresses in actions those feelings that are hard to put into words.
We know that time and time again we are caught in Catch-22 situations, and no matter what we do, sin will win out. The Ash Wednesday Liturgy taps these underlying frustrations, and we experience at least a momentary respite as the liturgy gives credence to these feelings of dis-ease.

For me, all three of these themes and indeed the whole of the Ash Wednesday liturgy is summarized in the imposition of ashes: being marked with the sign of the cross on my forehead with the ashes of last Palm Sunday. For a year these palms have born the symbol of my sin.
At baptism, new Christians receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and we say we are "marked as Christ's own for ever." We are identified as children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, citizens of the household of faith and the kingdom of God. If oil is used in marking their foreheads, it is nearly clear, so it is hard to discern the mark of the cross.

The mark of the cross is the shape of a capital "I". That which is uniquely me. My strengths and my weaknesses. My talents and my sins. Each of us is like none other. We are each called into a personal relationship with God that is different from everyone else -- not necessarily better or worse, just different. But this capital "I" is also that which separates me from God. It represents those things that I claim for myself alone: my terminal desire for uniqueness.
In imposing the ashes, the vertical stroke of the capital "I" is followed by the horizontal stroke of crossing it out. The "I" that is crossed out is the "I" that leads to the feelings of alienation from God. It is as if in the horizontal stroke the loving arms of Christ are stretched out to welcome me back home. The wiping away of the "I" that separates me from God gives me the freedom and the ability to reach out to my brothers and sisters.

The cross of ashes is a call to repent of the "sin" that I allow to separate me from God -- a call to forgiveness and wholeness -- and at the same time, the cross of ashes is formed by my personal relationship with God intersecting with my solidarity, my commonality, with all the others for whom Christ died.

Here on this Day of ashes, as we are marked with the sign of the cross, the sign is clearly visible. It is as if the reality of our identity as God's heirs and fellow siblings of Christ is only revealed by our getting our hands dirty and our feet wet. As the Gospel of John says, "The light shines in the darkness." We need the contrast of light and dark in order to see the brightness of the light. God is love at all times. "When People see you and know you, do they believe that God is Love?"

Sources include: Old commentaries and Internet extractions.