Ash Wednesday | Jeff Nowers | March 6, 2019
Today is a day of paradox. A paradox, as we all know, is a scenario wherein two seemingly contradictory things actually coexist in a tension of truth. A paradox won’t allow us to gravitate too much to the one side or the other; we must learn to affirm the two seemingly contradictory things together. What is the paradox that characterizes Ash Wednesday? I’d like to suggest that there are at least three paradoxes.
The first has to do with the smudge of ash that each of us will receive in a few moments. In a little while we’ll walk out of this church, through the bustling city, with ash-marked crosses on our foreheads for all to see. I recall a few years ago receiving ashes and then promptly hopping on a streetcar. Everyone looked at me very strangely because I had put my religiosity on full display. Was that a good thing? We just heard the words of Jesus: “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” Instead, Jesus says, go pray in your own room with the door shut. So today we’re faced, on the one hand, with a warning to guard ourselves against the public display of false piety and, on the other hand, with a desire to be visually reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Perhaps in that desire we are not so much drawing attention to our pious penitence but rather to the fact that we are children of God. At our baptism, we are marked with the sign of the cross as Christ’s own forever. And now at Ash Wednesday, that baptismal Chrismation is made starkly visible by ashes.
Another paradox of today has to do with who does what. It is the priest who administers the imposition of ashes and who reminds all who come forward that “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Is the priest exempted from this reminder? No, Lucy, Marguerite and I are also dust, and we too shall return to dust. In light of the horrendous abuses perpetrated by clergy, which are becoming increasingly exposed in our day, we would do well to remember that we are all—clergy and laity—dust. That has ramifications for how we should think about the hierarchies of the institutional church. Do bishops, priests and deacons, by virtue of their Holy Orders, reveal to us something of the goodness and love of God? Perhaps, sometimes. But what of those many instances when they don’t? When we are most disillusioned or frustrated with the church, remember that institutional structures are temporal and serve organizational ends. Clergy are made of the same substance as every other human—dust. If our churches are to enter a vibrant future, they will do so with a realization that we need more than good clergy; we need each other, clergy and laity together, from height to depth and all the way around. Ash Wednesday, therefore, shatters clericalism. It topples the priest’s pedestal. It is a reminder to all bishops, priests and deacons of their own real mortality, even as they are nonetheless set apart to remind everyone else of theirs.
A third paradox that I’d like to highlight is perhaps the most significant. Ash Wednesday is certainly a sobering reminder of our shortcomings and our need for deliverance. But it is also a day when we are reminded that that very deliverance is real. Indeed, we may experience it this day. Whenever we resolve not to point the finger impulsively at others, whenever we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then, as the prophet Isaiah declares, our “light shall rise in the darkness” and our gloom will “be like the noonday.” “The LORD will guide you continually,” says Isaiah, “and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Ash Wednesday is a time for us to recover that way of life. Yes, the ashes that each of us will receive are a reminder of our shattered humanness. But those same ashes also empower us to lead transformed lives. How? What we receive is not mere ashes but ashes mixed with holy oil. The same oil by which we are declared “Christ’s own forever” at our baptism is combined now with ashes, so that we are not left in the dust of the ground but raised up in strength to be an unfailing spring of water.
Today we remember that we are dust. And we shall return to dust. But we also remember that there is hope—hope that we shall rise from the dryness of the dust to become the water of God’s life that satisfies the whole world. May that hope be realized today.