To give them a garland instead of ashes

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 103
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 15-21

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister

St. Luke records the first sermon that Jesus ever preached. The way he tells it, Jesus went to his hometown to pray in the synagogue on the sabbath, and when the time came, they turned to him — the stranger come home — and asked him if he had a word for them. And he lifted the scroll of the scriptures and he opened it to the prophet Isaiah, and he began to read these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound in chains; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He stopped there, and added, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He stopped there, but the congregation, who would have known the scriptures well, would have known the next verse as well: “to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (Isaiah 61:3)

To give them a garland instead of ashes — that is the heart of Ash Wednesday: not the ashes, but the garland we seize through them: new life from ruins of what needs to die. We come here today to name and acknowledge our sins, our faults, our failures, to be honest about who we are when we are at our worst. Without that deep grounding in honesty, our life swiftly becomes an empty facade, but if we stop there, we stop far short of the calling of Jesus. We acknowledge our sins because we are reaching out for Christ’s sure forgiveness, because we do not wish to be trapped in deadening patterns, because we wish to live. Theologians speak of purifying our souls through a process they call “mortification” — killing the things that are killing us. That’s what we are about today.

The poet George Herbert writes,

How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;….

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite underground: as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather
Dead to the world, keep house unknown. (“The Flower”)

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart could have recover’d greennesse? Only Christ, who knows what it is to die, and what it is to live again. Trapped in the tomb, dead on his bier, lost to the world, did he know when his finger first twitched, when the blood began to move again, when he drew his first, shuddering breath and leapt from the tomb, alive and free — free to walk, free to run, free to risk, free to dare? Thirty years earlier, or a little more, an angel had come to his mother and asked her if she would bear God’s child, and she inclined her head and said she would. I think of that mighty act of grace, to say “yes” to new life, to a future she could barely imagine, and I wonder if Jesus echoed that “yes” before he rose, just as we must pronounce it each time we turn from what makes us dead and choose, again, to live.

When St. Paul entreats us, “be reconciled to God,” that is what he means: leave your tomb. Accept the life that God is holding out to you. I used to think he was being ironic in his use of “reconcile,” because surely it is God who needs to be reconciled to us. We have hurt God’s creatures, God’s creation; we have failed to bring about a just society; and maybe we even talk about the fact that it bothers us, but still, we do not change. Surely, it is God who needs to be reconciled to us.

And yet, looking again, I think that Paul was speaking plain truth. We see so much that makes it hard to trust God. Suffering, primarily, our own and that of others. We see wars and hunger and disease and disaster, and we begin to think that this God cannot be trusted (any more than we can), that maybe God is malicious or out to lunch, that maybe the world is placed in our hands because we could run it better. And so we do need to be reconciled to God: we need to let go of our anger and hurt that God does not play by our rules. We need to stop blaming God for the use we make of our freedom; we need to accept that that mess we have made is our own, and turn again to the One who can help us to redeem the loss.

Martin Luther wrote that each of us is both redeemed and a sinner (simul justus et peccator). Actually, the word he used was not “redeemed,” but “justified” — made to be just. And so we are both just and unjust, all at once, and often we are least just to our selves.

But Christ is just to all of us — and the justice of God and the mercy of God are one and the same. It is hard to remember that. We think of justice and mercy as opposites, the way that a condemned man pleads for mercy. But in Scripture, the opposite of justice is injustice. God always brings justice, and we, too often, bring injustice, because we fail to be merciful to one another. God, however, is always merciful: merciful enough to reject our injustice, merciful enough not to leave us in the pit we have dug, merciful enough to call us to walk in life anew. George Herbert tasted this mercy when he wrote,

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.

And so, this Ash Wednesday, let us accept the offer of God. Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. The poet Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Do you wish to spend it endlessly harming others? Endlessly despising yourself? Regretting the world we have made and the part you have played in it? Wouldn’t you rather live with a whole heart?

In a few minutes, when we say to you, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” remember that you are dust that has been redeemed. Remember that you are dust that has been loved. Remember that out of dust, God shaped a human being, and the God who could do that once can do it still. The breath that is in your lungs is of God. The words you speak, the time you have been given — all is of God, given so that we might return them, minute by minute, in acts of love and praise.

When we kneel in atonement today, we are making a powerful statement of trust. We do not name our sins without hope, but with trust in the unfailing mercy of God. We kneel because we can, and we rise because God is with us. We kneel in our own weakness, and we rise in the strength of Christ.
And so, as you receive the ashes today, remember the garland. Pluck one sweet blossom, and carry it in your mind as a sign of the life you are seeking: a life of beauty, of hope, and of trust. Carry it with you, and let it remind of your own fragility, and of the eternal mercy of God.

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