© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine
University Congregational Church
Ash Wednesday, 2009
Reading: Matthew 6: 22 (NRSV)
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
Like most Protestant children, I grew up with a very limited understanding of the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Generally we talked about what we had to “give up” during Lent, and we conveniently chose things that we were not likely to ever have to give up in the first place – things like whiskey and cigarettes – to which we had not real access. The other day a woman told my wife that she was thinking about giving up sex for Lent. But then decided that might be harder than the time she gave up coffee for Lent. Besides, she mused, her husband would probably not like it either.
Lent is clearly a time for soul searching. And we are gathered here this evening to mark the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. It is a season of solemnity as we account for our humanity. This is the time to remember that the Christian faith is about loving sacrifice and the cost of discipleship. The powerful images that we use in this evening’s liturgy are ashes, bread, and wine. Ashes – the stuff we are made from and will return to. Bread the staff of life. And wine to heal and make our hearts glad.
I truly hope that this evening will not be one of long faces, personal brooding, and existential angst. As Jesus said in Matthew, “Do not look dismal.” By all means, let us confess our faults, moral fissures, and sins. But I submit to you that we can only do so with the sure and certain knowledge that grace meets us on the other side of sin. Love embraces the confessional. The confessional sits next door to the sanctuary. Indeed, we could not disclose even one sin without the possibility of hope or transformation. Or to put it another way, we cannot enter darkness without light.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point. Do you know the name of Johnny Gruelle? Probably not, but his work is as familiar to you as your own childhood. Johnny Gruelle created the character of Raggedy Ann. Gruelle had an only daughter by the name of Marcella. Marcella was ill with infection from the small pox vaccine. One day Marcella was rummaging through her grandmother’s attic. There she found an old rag doll. The doll was so old that her face was faded beyond recognition. Johnny Gruelle painted a new face on the doll. He and Marcella named the doll “Raggedy Ann” based on two poems by his friend James Whitcomb Riley.
With the doll in hand, Gruelle told stories to Marcella about “Raggedy Ann’s” adventures until she finally died in 1916. After her death Gruelle wrote, illustrated, and published twenty-five books based on the Raggedy Ann character he had told Marcella about. In 1918, he began making dolls to sell as storybook companions.
Now I would like for you to imagine this father’s plight. How do you nurse and love a child who is dying? How do you spend time with her day by day? What do you say to her? How do you comfort her? What light do you bring to such darkness? Johnny Gruelle told his daughter stories.
You know me well enough by now that I am not going to evade the human condition. I am not going to deny the brokenness that is often found in humanity – the wounds and scars, the proclivity to evil. I do not say that with anger. I am not being judgmental. Even in the best of us is the possibility of destruction. And I cannot embrace my humanity or your humanity without the larger story of God’s grace. I cannot sit in darkness without a match or a candle or a fire. No one can.
Nor do I think we spend the next forty days in gloom and doom. I think we work our way through the human condition and tell the stories of light. We write about adventures of the spirit. We hold the hands of God’s children and tell them, “Do not be afraid. Daddy is with you. Mommy is with you. God is with you.”
I think I have told you in the past that I use the daily office of prayers for morning and evening. Indeed, the earliest Christian daily prayer was dawn and dusk. These are respectively called lauds and vespers. But my favorite prayer of the church is “compline,” the prayer that is said right before you go to bed. The prayer reads in part:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with all who work or watch or weep this night,
And give Your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, we pray, and give rest to the weary;
Soothe the suffering and bless the dying;
Pity the afflicted and shield the joyous;
And all for Your love’s sake. Amen.
I love this prayer because it is so tender. As we go down into the darkness we take with us the light of love’s Word. We light the candle of mercy. We close our eyes and our minds are warmed by the fires of grace.
That is how I understand the season of Lent. Tonight we will take ashes on our foreheads. Then we will break the bread and drink the wine of God’s love for us.