University Congregational Church
March 10, 2019
“Reclaiming the Symbols of Lent: Ashes”
Isaiah 58: 5-6
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and the beginning of a new sermon series on “Reclaiming the Symbols of Lent”. We will be looking at the various symbols – ashes, the purple robe, crown of thorns, the Passover meal, palms, and the cross, and reclaiming them as progressive symbols for our Lenten theme. Since Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, today we are looking at the history and theme of ashes.
Sackcloth and ashes were used in ancient times as a symbol of mourning and repentance. Sackcloth was a coarse material usually made of black goat’s hair, making it quite uncomfortable to wear. Think ancient goat hair burlap. The ashes signified desolation and ruin. When someone died, the act of wearing sackcloth showed heartfelt sorrow. The Jews wore sackcloth and ashes in times of national disaster or when they repeated from sin as a nation or as individuals. In at least one instance, they even put sackcloth on their animals (Jonah 3:5-7)! Our traditional word for today is from Isaiah and speaks to the contrition of fasting, sackcloth and ashes:
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Isaiah 58:5-6
Of course, wearing sackcloth and putting ashes on one’s body were only an outward symbol of what was happening on the inside. The outer symbol showed an inner change of heart and the sincerity of a person’s grief and/or repentance. King David was known to put on sackcloth and ashes and ask for God’s forgiveness. In the psalms, David proclaims, “You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”. (Psalm 30:11)
After Jesus, the disciples continued using ashes and reinterpreted the meanings for Jesus followers. When Christianity was legalized in 313 CE, the season of Lent started being observed. The sign of ashes and observance of Ash Wednesday date back to the 11th century, but in the 1970’s it became a renewed trend in America. The ash used for Ash Wednesday is made of palm branches used on the previous Palm Sunday. They represent the fickle way we celebrate Jesus one day with praise and singing and then betray him in our everyday lives soon after. The ashes obviously symbolize our betrayal of Jesus, our confession of that betrayal, and our ultimate death.
Often the ancient words are spoken on Ash Wednesday: We are dust and to dust we shall return. It is true. We will die. Our lives end. This is the reality of Lent.
Yet, all of us who know about the properties of fire, which makes ash, know something else. When Mrs. Lily evacuated her home near Redding, CA to escape the Carr Fire, she didn’t know when she would be able to return. And she was fairly certain that when she did, she would be returning to ashes. Her home was, in fact, one of the 1200 homes destroyed by the fire.
Mrs. Lily had insurance on her home, but her settlement will not be enough to rebuild. Meanwhile, she was denied FEMA assistance. At this point, more than six months out from the fire, hope can be fleeting, but small encouragements keep Mrs. Lily –and others like her– moving forward.
She believes, however, that God is presence through all seasons – through times of joy and celebration; through heartbreak and loss; through times of tragedy and into days of rebuilding.
Several months after the fire, Mrs. Lily made another visit to her home, still expecting nothing but dust and ashes. “I went back with her to the house to sift through the rubble,” said a friend. “It was amazing. You know, she had this rose bush in her yard…and it looked totally burned, like everything else. But there, at the base of the vine, a new shoot was growing.” There amidst the ash and rubble of her former home was a sign of new life, a sign of hope, a symbol that God was not finished with her, a symbol of love for Mrs. Lily.
This is the thing that so many people miss about Ash Wednesday and about the season of Lent… it does not have to be morbid or horrifyingly sad. Knowing that we are dust and to dust we will return can actually be liberating! Follow me here. On Ash Wednesday, the reality that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves is born out of the knowledge that we are molded together over eons – molded together by a force bigger than we can even begin to imagine, a force we call God, whom we can also simply call Love. The dust from which you are made is brilliant.
Rev. Dawn Hutchings says that there is an Irish expression that translates from the Gaelic into something like this: “We’ve been lying down in the earth for about fifteen million years and we have only a short time here; a brief collection of moments. If that isn’t motivation for each and every one of us to live everything that is within us, then perhaps we have already died.”
The thing is that each one of us took billions and billions of years to make – it is beyond our ability to even comprehend the molecules and genes within us. We are part of something so much bigger than we can imagine. We are precious and unrepeatable.
I want to close with a letter from God written by Barb Morris and adapted for this sermon…
On Ash Wednesday, if you’re in church, the minister will invite you to the observance of a “holy Lent” and mark your forehead with the ashes of repentance.
Let me be very clear about this at the outset: I love you so much. I delight in you. I cherish you. For ever.
Here are a few more things I want you to comprehend. Despite what you’ve been taught, “holy” does not mean pure and unearthly. “Sin” does not mean breaking my rules and making me mad. “Penitence” does not mean listing and wallowing in all the ways you’re wrong and bad. Repentance does not mean promising to do better to stay out of trouble.
Please think about these words a new way, on Ash Wednesday and every other day going forward.
What if you only sin when you refuse healing and cling to brokenness? When you use those sharp broken edges to hurt yourself and others?
What if holiness is when you choose to be whole, even though you’re terrified? When you embrace and enfold those pieces of yourself you’ve lopped off to fit into others’ molds?
What if penitence is when you see yourself clearly, and know, speak, and live from your heart?
What if “repentance” is re-membering your true self in all your messy glory?
What if, this Lent, instead of focusing on the ways you’re not good enough and the ways you fall short, you commit to your own healing?
I was there at the Big Bang, enlivening every particle, atom and molecule. You are made of me, and through me you are connected to everything and everyone. I am everywhere. You swim in me and I in you.
This means, my dear, when you let yourself be healed, your healing heals the world. And when you cling to your brokenness, the world stays a little more broken than it needs to be. Your healing is important and necessary. You think your healing is selfish. That’s incorrect. Your healing is crucial. I’m using that word deliberately, sweetheart. Your healing IS the crux – where you and I come together.
This Lent, the only fasts I want from you are these: Fast from distractions that allow you to stay wounded and broken. Fast from believing you’re not good enough. Fast from making yourself small, and nice, and silent. Fast from all judgment, especially of yourself.
This Lent, make space for me to flow into you and through you. Befriend your fear, your anger, and your sadness. They are a deep source of nourishment and strength.
Let your love go free.
Let your joy be unconfined.
Sweetheart, healing isn’t complicated, and it’s always available. All you have to do is tap into it, like a maple tree in springtime or an aquifer of living water. You know this. But it’s so easy to forget, isn’t it? All you have to do is let me clear out the dams and the trash, the resentments and identities and old, too-small skins, that keep you stuck and stagnant. Relax your heart armor just a little. And then allow yourself to flow, child. That’s all you have to do. I’ll do the rest.
This Ash Wednesday, let those ashes symbolize our unending connection, a connection so easy to forget and so simple to strengthen. When the minister wipes those gritty ashes on your forehead and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” celebrate your elemental oneness with this dear, dirty earth and with me. I am in those ashes, in the dust, in the stars, and in you.
I need you! You’re the only you I created. So, please, let yourself be the creation I made you to be. You don’t need someone outside yourself telling you how to live. Trust yourself. Trust your heart. Trust me. I’ve got you.
All my Love,
www.weekofcompassion.org “Ashes to Ashes”. March 5, 2019.
www.barbmorris.com “A letter from God to her daughters who observe Lent”. March 4, 2019.
www.gotquestions.org “What is the Meaning of Sackcloth and Ashes?”
www.christianity.com “What is Ash Wednesday?” by Kelly Givens
Ross, Ashley. Time Magazine. “The Long History Behind Ash Wednesday Traditions”. February 10, 2016.
Hutchings, Rev. Dawn. “On Ash Wednesday, Let Us Revel in the Knowledge that We are Dust and to Dust We Shall Return”. Feb. 28, 2017. www.Progressivechristianity.org