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Ash Wednesday (Evening); Joel 2:1-2,12-17a

Many cultures practice tithing, not just Jews and Christians, giving a fraction of each year’s crops and income for holy use. It recognizes that all comes to us from God, and it is appropriate to return something for God’s work. Tithing is not a foreign idea in our Anglican Christianity, even if it is observed more in the exhortation of theologians, preachers, and church wardens than in actual practice. But it is an error to restrict tithing only to goods and money; time also is God’s gift, and we might consider returning about a tenth of our time to God for holy purposes. The 40 days of Lent, roughly 1/10th of a year, are an opportunity for this.

We are in good company doing so. Jesus, after his baptism and the Holy Spirit’s proclamation of him as Messiah, Son of God, went into the wilderness for 40 days to ask what it meant to be Christ. During a traditional Lent, Christians are encouraged to ask , one way or another, what it means to be a follower of Christ. If you do this properly and thoroughly, it leads naturally to the remainder of the traditional Lenten disciplines, which you will hear later in this Service: “penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and reading and meditating on the word of God.”

Frederick Buechner1 suggests some questions for self-examination during Lent, not to be answered quickly and then forgotten, but to mull over, reflect on, with answers revisited over the next six weeks. (As an educator I should preface them with the traditional instruction found in more traditional examinations, “No more than three to be attempted.”)

If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or not; which would get your money, and why?

Look at your face in a mirror; what do you see in it that you most like, and what do you most deplore?

Of all the things you have done in your life, which one would you most like to undo?

Of all the things you have done in your life, what is the one that makes you happiest to remember? And which one saddens you the most?

Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?

If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

If you explore questions like these, being brutally honest, then you begin to hear not only who you are, but also who you are becoming, and who you are failing to become. That can be a pretty depressing business, just like Lent can be dismal and depressing, but as with Lent at the end there may be something like Easter in your self-knowledge. However, first this examination begins with ashes, rummaging about in the ashes of our lives, of which the ashes shortly to be put on our foreheads are only a symbol.

So, do not treat lightly this historical ritual. The ashes are your own, your hopes, your dreams. Do not take lightly the step forward for ashes. Do not casually seek some symbol of religious piety. Do not come out of some misguided sense of obligation. This is not a casual thing, it is for those wanting to take an honest look at their lives.

There is no magic to be had here, only memories. Memories of things done and left undone. Memories of good and bad. Memories of our humanity. Memories of the graciousness of God.

In the ashes of our life, we remember the Son of God, made flesh for us, sharing our suffering, sharing our sorrows, then, and now! We remember the Son of God, crucified for us, laying down his life, a sacrifice and an example, for us, whom he loves. We remember the Son of God, raised for us, bursting the bonds of death, calling us out of the ashes of death to new lives of love and compassion.

Come then for ashes: for confession, for sorrow at our part in the disfigurement of God’s creation. Come for ashes: for contrition, repenting and grieving the suffering of our Saviour. Come for ashes: for renewal, re-creation, re-affirmation of the vows of holiness made at your baptism.

Come for ashes: come to be re-sealed with the cross of Christ, as you were sealed with the same sign when you became a child of God. Come for ashes: and remember that with this same sign in baptism you received the forgiveness of God, fully, freely, and forever. Come for ashes: and remember that with this same sign you received the Holy Spirit of God with her promise of strength and sustenance, no matter what.

Return to the Lord, your God; for the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

1   Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (Harper & Row, 1973), pp.74–75

Copyright ©2023 by Gerry Mueller