Fr. Bill Carroll – Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023
For the Lord himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It has been a rough couple of weeks around here. It started on Tuesday morning a week ago, when Martha Joseph died unexpectedly. The next day, Delfina Whitwell broke her hip after our Bible study. The funeral for Martha was on Friday. And then on Monday morning, Nancy Fletcher died suddenly and unexpectedly.
As a result, I feel emotionally worn out. I have anointed the bodies of two people I love for burial. I have walked through the early stages of grief with their family and friends. And I’ve seen another person I love in excruciating pain. Fortunately, Deflina’s surgery was a success and she is on the road to recovery. But, for Martha and Nancy, all we could do was pray for them and comfort one another. In the end, we commend our loved ones into the arms of Jesus.
And that reminds me of two of the main themes of Ash Wednesday: our weakness and our mortality. There are other themes, and we’ll get to those in a moment. But let’s start with the fact that our bodies give out and eventually we die.
Today, as we begin the season of Lent, a priest puts a cross of ashes on our heads as a sign of our mortality and penitence. “Remember that you are dust (we hear), and to dust you shall return.” We are reminding ourselves of something that we often deny–-but that God never forgets. “For the Lord himself knows whereof we are made. He remembers that we are but dust.”
A few weeks ago in church, we heard from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit (he said) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Spiritual poverty is about knowing that all that we have (and all that we are) comes as a gift from God. It is an attitude of humility before our Creator, who breathes into us the very breath of life. It is about knowing our weakness–and accepting that God loves us just as we are.
In a book called Extravagant Love, which we are studying together for Lent, Ruth Burrows writes that “This is our basic poverty. We are a yearning, an emptiness crying out to be filled by God.” These are the words of a ninety-nine-year-old Carmelite nun who has spent more than eight decades in prayer.
Another Carmelite sister, St. Therese of Lisieux, lived a much shorter life. She needed special permission to enter the monastery when she was fifteen. And nine years later, she died of tuberculosis. It was the end of the nineteenth century, before modern medicine and painkillers.
Although she often suffered both physically and spiritually, Therese never gave up on Jesus and his love. Indeed, she is known for her teaching on what she called the “little way,” in which she boiled the whole Christian life down to letting Jesus love us and loving others by his grace. At one point, she writes (with wisdom gained through hard experience), “What an unspeakable joy [it is] to carry our crosses feebly.” Feebly, in weakness, we carry the Cross.
That reminds me of a woman I once knew in a former parish. I buried Debbie after a long battle with cancer. Her body was exhausted after several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation that helped her fight back tumors throughout her body. She lived twenty years with cancer. Debbie allowed herself to go through that ordeal, in order to buy more time with her family. She saw one daughter get married and the other graduate from college. And then at last, she decided not to take any more treatments and went into hospice care. She died at home surrounded by her family and friends. She was about sixty years old when she died.
Now Debbie was one of the acolytes at our eight o’clock service. Often, she would often carry the cross. And the last time–I’ll never forget the last time he carried that cross. It was on Palm Sunday, and it was right before she started to use a wheelchair. There’s always a big parade on Palm Sunday (we used to march around the block), and we remember the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
We kept the route shorter that year, because Debbie was in the lead, and we knew she would need it to be shorter. She was already struggling to walk, but she walked the whole length of that little route. And she wobbled up the last three steps. And then, we had to wait a couple of extra seconds while she put the cross in its stand at the front of the church. But she made it. And somewhere in that moment, there’s a metaphor for a Christian life well-lived. “What an unspeakable joy [it is] to carry our crosses feebly.”
That brings me to the other themes of Ash Wednesday: sin and repentance. In the lesson we just heard from Isaiah, God tells us that the fast that he wants is a fast from injustice. And so, God calls us to help break the bonds of oppression. God calls us to feed hungry people, to house homeless people, and not to turn our backs on any suffering member of the human family.
Today, we are invited to pray and reflect. We are invited to fast; to deny ourselves; to do the works of mercy and the works of justice; and to study God’s holy Word. And we will confess our sins in far more detail than we ordinarily would do.. The purpose of all of it is to remind ourselves that we need God–and that we need other people. For we are called to share God’s love with all the people he puts into our lives. To quote from St. Therese again, “in a single loving action [even when we feel little or nothing] all is atoned for.” She is alluding to the Scriptures, both the First Epistle of Peter and also the Epistle of James, where we read that “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
Simple actions of receiving and sharing God’s love. That’s how we grow closer to Jesus. Simple acts of forgiveness. That’s what the Gospel is all about. As we read in our Psalm today:
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.