Fr. Bill Carroll – Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I’d like to draw your attention, right at the start, to our opening hymn.  And it’s always been something that has spoken profoundly to me.  But, it’s hard to understand the hymn without realizing that it is a poem by John Donne.

And so, in those last little refrains, where he says, “When thou hast done, thou hast not done,” over and over again, he’s praying to God.  And he’s saying that you have me, but you don’t really have me, because of my sin.

And then, there’s that very powerful last verse of the hymn. 

I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore
Swear by thyself that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now and heretofore
And having done, that thou hast done, 
I fear no more.

God has taken us to himself through our Lord Jesus Christ, so that our sin does not speak the last word about us.  God has the last word, and the name of that Word is “Jesus.”

Today, I’m going to say some powerful words that mark God’s People for death.  We impose ashes to signify our solidarity with the rest of the human family in sin and, ultimately, in mortality.  

If these words are hard for us to hear, please realize that they are just as hard to say.  Ever since I’ve become a priest, I’ve had to say them to many people I love (some of them I’ve gone on to bury).  I’ve even had to say them to my own children.  This morning, in school chapel, Mother Vivian got the part of the line where the little ones were–two year olds, three year olds, four year olds, right?  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

These are very difficult words—but they are necessary ones.  They are honest words, maybe the most honest words we ever say in church. They’re words that push us to let go of our illusions of self-sufficiency and control.

Today is a serious day.  It’s a somber day.  Today, we begin a spiritual journey together.  But we do so as those who have set our hope on the living Lord.  We do so as those whom Jesus has claimed as his very own. And so today, we rejoice.

Even in Lent, the celebration of the Eucharist reminds us how it all ends.  Every Eucharist shows us Jesus and his love–and the joy of his Resurrection.  Easter joy is the goal of this season and all its holy work.  It is the hidden meaning of every spiritual discipline.  The joy of Jesus alive–that’s what it’s all about.  

But today, of all days, God does call us to repent.  Today’s liturgy, with its long “litany of penitence,” reminds us of the specific ways that we all fall short.  

Lent is a time to turn from those things and live.  It’s a time to let Jesus to rekindle our love for him–our love for our neighbors.  And it’s a time to learn the depths of his mercy and his forgiveness for every last one of us.  We need this, because too often we give our hearts to other masters.

In Lent, we turn back to Jesus and his ways.  We recommit ourselves to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless poor, covering the naked (all those things that Isaiah is talking about in the lesson that we just heard).  We remember our promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We learn to keep this promise–to stop making so many exceptions.  And we learn the sobering truth—that all really does mean all.  Those we like, those we love, those who give us difficulty.  All really does mean all of them.  Every last human being.

In Lent, we undertake the costly work of reconciliation.  We make room for God to shape us into the new creation that he desires.  And so, we examine ourselves.  We renew the promises of our Baptism.  We forsake the sinful patterns that divide us from God and from our neighbors.  And we pledge ourselves to more study, more prayer, more worship.  We give up the things that distract us from the work of love.  And we recommit ourselves to follow in the steps of Jesus.

Throughout this holy season, we are marked as pilgrims, who journey under the sign of the Cross.  The disciplines we take on show us the power of sin and death in our lives.  It doesn’t matter exactly which disciplines or how we do the disciplines.  The meaning of every discipline is our journey out into the desert with Christ–to meet his mercy, to receive new life.  

And yet, the Cross that we receive isn’t really ours, is it?  We are called to take it up and follow Jesus.  But, in the end, the Cross belongs to him alone.  Only Jesus can do what needs to be done for us.  We join him in the struggle against evil, but the battle belongs to him.

The Cross of Ashes that we receive today—like the Cross of Oil we receive when we are newly baptized—marks us as his own.  It reminds us that, in and through the Cross, we belong to Jesus.  

Every Lent, God invites us to make that difficult journey, through dry places and the shadow of death.  And yet, we do not make that journey alone.  God has set his seal on us.  He is with us in our places of shame and failure, as well as those places of success.  He is with us to forgive us and to give us the strength to go on.  And we are also with each other in all those painful and difficult places, as well as the places of joy,  lifting up the light of Christ for each other, as we stumble forward into the Promised Land.

And so, brothers and sisters, as we begin the sacred time of Lent, we journey out into the desert together, and we remember we are dust.  Though we may at times forget this fact, God never does.  

God sees us.  God sees us in all our frailty, all our weakness, all of our sin.  God sees us and remembers. And God gives us the Living Water in dry places.  God sends his Spirit of renewal and love.  God anoints us for healing.  

God sees us weak and wayward children, and so God sends Jesus, his Son.  

For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him. 

As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our sins from us. 

As a father cares for his children,
so does the LORD care for those who fear him. 

For he himself knows whereof we are made;
he remembers that we are but dust.