Homily for Ash Wednesday
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Last year, Ash Wednesday happened to coincide with my Spring Break at VCU. It was a transitional time for me, literally: I was in the midst of serving as transitional deacon and Missioner to Monroe Park, while at the same time exploring options for what might follow my priestly ordination later that spring. My situation was a familiar refrain to many of you, I’m sure: just when it seemed like the perfect opportunity was coming together…appropriate for the story I’m about to tell…my best laid plans went up in flames. I decided to take some much needed time away during that week away from academic classes to think and to pray. But, there was also a practical reality to attend to: we had a day full of services, but we didn’t have quite the supply of ashes that we thought we did. Thankfully, there was still a retained supply of dried palm crosses and fronds from the prior Palm Sunday…and for those of you who don’t know, that is the source of these ashes that we use to mark the beginning of Lent.
Not to de-glamorize the process, but I think it’s important to give a little context to my story. Mid-afternoon on one of those transitional spring break days, I found myself in the midst of the holy work of ash making. Let me set the scene: a Priest, a Deacon, a Property Manager and a Sexton gathered in a parking lot around an oversized aluminum mixing bowl that had been borrowed from the parish kitchen…a bowl, incidentally, that I often used to mix huge quantities of salad for those seeking food and shelter during the weekly hot lunch meal we served every Friday at that parish. It was windy, so it took four of us acting as a human wind-break around this make-shift firepit, kindling up a palm fire which we were hoping would neither overtake the bowl nor get blown out. We were successful, in case you were wondering: no-one was singed and there were plenty of ashes to go around. But that isn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is that after tending that fire and breaking down of the carbon remnants of the palms into a fine ash then preparing them for imposition: I knew where they came from. I held those ashes the following day, praying with my lips the words which call the Church to repentance, while imposing the ashy remnants of palms waved with shouts of hosanna, stripped down to their essence by purging flames contained in a bowl of hospitality, protected and tended by the caretakers of the Church’s spiritual, physical and material well-being.
Sometimes we need to be reminded where we come from.
Ash Wednesday offers us that opportunity. It breaks us away from our patterns of life as usual. It requires us to interrupt our best laid plans, our normal routines, and to rend our hearts open. We impose ashen crosses on our physical form and pray words collectively and individually that remind us of our non-glamorous origins. Ash Wednesday doesn’t placate us and it doesn’t absolve us: it calls us to prayers of repentance, and ushers us into a whole season of opening our hearts to meet God in new and palpable ways. With our hearts open and humble, we can’t rely on our outward displays of piety, or our shouts of loud hosannas, or treasures stored up on this earth. Those aren’t going to save us. Like the ashes imposed on us today, we are purged and refined; we are reminded that all of us are of the same essence, formed of the same dust.
It is also a day where we are reminded that God, the Source of All, knows us and loves us all, profoundly. We are sometimes reduced to our essence in this world. But we, too, are held in a bowl of hospitality and tended by the One who knows what we are really made of. So, into that purging fire we are invited to toss away the human-induced hurts that weary our bodies and consume our thoughts: our afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. Because, even reduced to our essence, we are beloved.
As we are reminded in our Epistle reading, it is through the purifying power of God that we can then open ourselves to freely receiving the gifts that belong to God: knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, truthful speech, and genuine love. We store up these heavenly treasures, opening to God’s work through us. Nothing goes to waste; purging that which distracts us from God frees us to do the work that God calls us to do.
But, even though it is Ash Wednesday, I want to talk a bit about another substance today, too: chalk. Chalk in its original form is a naturally occurring sedimentary rock, a form of soft limestone extracted from sea water as it evaporates. We’ve developed easier ways to manufacture the white (or even colorful) blackboard and sidewalk chalk we use today. But chalk, scientifically, is naturally composed of calcium carbonate formed underwater by slow accumulation and compression of the calcite shells from microscopic, single-celled organisms. And when chalk is manufactured today, its close chemical cousin calcium sulfate, also known as gypsum, is used as a base. Both of these minerals are water soluble; they will wash away with water and eventually return to the sea where their molecules will be added to layers of marine calcium. Over millions of years, these will again become compressed through time and gravity, forming layers of hardened calcium carbonate chalk or beds of gypsum. The calcium cycle repeats. Chalk, even when it seems to be washed away, is never destroyed.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are part of something greater than we are.
So, I’m inviting us to think about the lessons of ashes and chalk as we begin a holy lent. When you leave today, take a piece of chalk with you. This is a reminder to love and to pray. Find a place…or several places…in need of love. Maybe it’s in your neighborhood, or where you work. Perhaps its a place that is abandoned or somewhere that reminds you of healing that is yet to happen. I invite you to take your chalk and make your mark on or near that place…draw a heart, write an encouraging word, let people know that place is loved because there is no corner of this world where God’s love cannot reach. Then, I invite you to pray. Pray for that place. Enfold that place with love, sourced in God. Revisit it when you can. Not for piety’s sake. But because you are a caretaker of God’s love this Lenten season, right where you are standing. Leave more chalky love there if the rain washes it away. Nurture and tend that place God has called you to love this lenten season, and open your heart to what God has to tell you.
This is the good news, my friends: we are dust, and to dust we will return. We are of the essence and form of this world that God created, and nothing goes to waste. Purging our pain, our worries, our fears and our woes opens us to new forms of love and grace. God tends us so that we may open our hearts to the greater gifts and allow God’s patience, kindness, holiness, and love to work through us. We are the dusty, beloved people of God who don’t need to beat ourselves up or tear our clothes or fast until we faint to prove a point…we just need to be open to the work God is doing in us: to fully immerse into the cycle of giving and receiving love, just as we were created to do.
And so today, we have ashes and we have chalk. Both are dusty reminders, each in their own way, of where we come from and the greater work of which we are a part.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.