February 10, 2016, Ash Wednesday, Smudged for Life – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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When I was a little girl, growing up in the Catholic Church, the main thing I remember about Ash Wednesday is that you could look around you, in the store, or on the street, and see who the good people were. The good people were the people who went to church, of course. Ash Wednesday was the one day in the year that you could look at people and tell if they were good or not, because the good people were the ones with black smudges on their foreheads. And I’m afraid I didn’t understand Ash Wednesday any better than that. I was every bit as ignorant as I was self-righteous back then.
It is of great value in our tradition that we have sacramentals – things like the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, the oil for anointing, holy images or icons, the sign of the cross we use to bless ourselves, incense, or the bells we ring for the elevation of the elements at communion – all those physical symbols that make the realities of our faith present to our human senses of taste and touch and sight and smell and hearing. But the power of the sacramentals doesn’t lie in their beauty or their solemnity, and it certainly doesn’t lie in their ability to prove how good we are. The power of sacramentals lies in the power of the reality that they represent. And for that reason, it is very important that we seek to understand, insofar as we are able, what that reality is.
The most excellent thing is that whether we understand completely or only with the understanding of a little child, the reality remains the same, because sacraments don’t represent anything we do of our human will or effort; they represent the will and working of God himself. You have probably learned the definition of sacrament at some time or other, if you’ve been Episcopalian for very long – “A sacrament is an outward and tangible sign of an inner and spiritual reality.” Which means, for instance, that the reality of baptism doesn’t depend upon our understanding the nuances of the theology behind the symbols of washing with water and anointing with oil. That is why, if you were baptised as a tiny baby and your parents were pretty nominal church-goers at best, when you come to faith as an adult you don’t need to be re-baptized, because your faith is a sign to you that God was at work when the priest held you in his arms and poured the water on your little forehead, though no one else held up their end of the bargain in the years that followed.
But the reason it is important for us to learn the meaning behind the sacramentals is that their purpose is to make spiritual realities tangible and meaningful to us, through every sense that God gave us to know things with – not only our brains, but the full range of our senses as well as our brains. And the greatest sacramental of all time was our Lord, who made God the Father tangible to our every human sense. That’s what the incarnation is all about.
Today, Ash Wednesday, we receive the sign of ashes, imposed upon our foreheads with the words “Remember that you are dust; and to dust you shall return.” These ashes are some of the humblest and lowliest of all the sacramentals, just black powder. They came from the palms of last year’s Palm Sunday procession, that I dried and burned down until their was nothing left but this black dust, messy, and pretty unimpressive, really. But its power lies in what it represents.
We know that ashes and dust represent the frailty of our existence. This body that houses me, that I feed and dress and care for, as real and warm and solid as it is in its flesh and blood and bone and breath, will some day be no more alive than this little stone jar of palm ashes. That is the truth. “Remember.” we say on this day. “Remember that God formed you from the dust of the earth, and that you are destined to return to the earth when you have breathed your last breath.” That is the truth.
But it’s not the whole truth. Because when you kneel down at the altar rail and I dip my thumb in the ashes and smudge them on you forehead, I don’t just mark you with a symbol that says you are doomed. I put the ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross, and that makes all the difference. When you were baptized, however long ago that was, the priest said this about you: that you were marked as Christ’s own forever. And the cross of ashes says to you today that although your body will return to the dust of death someday, that’s not the end of your story. Your fragile, altogether mortal body, is destined to be restored to life someday through the victory of the One who conquered death on the cross. – not an airy-fairy harp-in-the-clouds kind of life, but the kind of solid, touchable, realler-than-reality-itself life that our Lord had after his Resurrection from the tomb.
And just as the cross, a human instrument of cruelty and pain and death became the means of eternal life for all who accept Jesus Christ, so this cross-shaped smear of ash on your forehead is a sign to you – even more than a sign, it is a promise to you – that your own mortality will be for you the gateway to joy and life.
So the smudge of black on our foreheads is not a sign to us that we are the good people, as I thought when I was a foolish little girl. But it is a sign to us that we are people who have hope. And when we go out on the street today, or to the store, or wherever our day takes us, bearing the sign of our human mortality, let it be a reminder to us to bear the compassion and love of Christ to all those who do not yet have a hope beyond the dust of their own death.