Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why Ashes?

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: I don't intend to speak for very long this evening … Ash Wednesday is penitential enough without my forcing you to endure a long sermon. And I'm sure that by this late hour the sack-cloth shirts you are all wearing discretely out of sight under your clothing are beginning to scratch and itch and you can't wait to get home and take them off …

But joking aside … in our Gospel reading today, Christ speaks to his disciples about the times when they will fast … and our reading from Joel also speaks of fasting … fasting is of course one of the ancient ways of doing penance, of showing God we are sorry for doing wrong, and attempting to do better & draw closer to him, both through prayer and also by the disciplining of our bodies …

And from ancient times there were other penitential practices that were associated with fasting; one was the wearing of sack-cloth (also known as hair shirts) … hence my teasing remark at the start; and the other was the use of ashes … it is a practice we see many places in the Bible: most famously in Job, but also in other books such as Jonah, Numbers, Jeremiah & Daniel, in the Old Testament … and we find it also in the New Testament, from the lips of our Lord and Saviour himself in the Gospels of St Luke and St Matthew when Jesus speaks of repenting in sack-cloth and ashes …

So what was the point of ashes? Symbolically, ashes represent our own mortality. You will remember the words of the funeral service: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust … words reminiscent of God's in Genesis when he tells our first parents that dust they are and to dust they shall return … but for Christians those words take on added meaning, having as we do the hope of Eternal Life in Christ Jesus … That is the reason for the traditional words used for the imposition of ashes are: the first part being 'Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return' from Genesis; and the second part 'Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel' from St Mark's Gospel. These verses of scripture sum up very well why it is that we prepare ourselves for Easter by journeying first through this penitential season of Lent … so that we might draw closer to God through the spiritual disciplines we take on and thereby achieve Christ's promise of eternal life for ourselves. Ashes remind us that we are creatures of dust who need God's free grace not only to put the breathe of life into us, but who need that grace even more to give us the spark of eternal life.

Lent of course begins with Ash Wednesday … and the reason we call it Ash Wednesday is because it is the day when Christians marked themselves with ashes as a way of not only proclaiming to the world that not only were they Christians but also sending out a visible signal that they intended to hold Lent as a holy and penitential season … I was asked during the week why I intended to offer ashes at our parish services today. My only response to that question is that today is Ash Wednesday - why call it Ash Wednesday if ashes are not at least offered? 

I know that in Ireland there is something of a perception that ashes are something only done by Catholics … that impression probably comes from the fact that the vast majority of Christians in this country are Catholic. But in fact, outside Ireland the use of ashes on this day is widely accepted amongst the other mainstream Christian churches: Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, & Lutherans … not to mention Orthodox Churches … which clearly demonstrates that the practice is not now, nor never has been, reserved to the Catholic Church … it is part of the universal Church … a practice that dates back to those happy days of the undivided Church … 

My own experience in the Church of Ireland is that ashes have been offered on this day in all of the parishes I have been involved with. Not everybody takes them, of course, and that is fine; but I have noticed over the years that more do; and I think that is because many are coming to understand this practice as a part of our common Christian heritage that they wish to recover or re-claim, recognising it as an ancient Church tradition of great value … I spoke of that value earlier: it's symbolic value as an ancient sign of penance linking Old Testament Times with New Testament and the early Church with the Church of today … it's value as a way of reminding oneself physically that Lent has begun & we are called to observe it as a penitential season … and it's value of proclaiming to the world the fact that we are Christians and we are not afraid to show our commitment to it in a very public way.

And so I offer Ashes today because it is one of the ancient traditions of our Church and I feel that I am obliged to do so … while also stating clearly that no one is obliged to accept them … because whether you mark yourself with ashes or not, you have marked this Holy day by gathering here to celebrate this Eucharist in symbol of the fact that you intend to hold this season of Lent as holy … and that intent is more important than whether you receive ashes this night or not … and it is for that intention to observe this Lent as true disciples of Christ – people who will deny themselves, take up their Cross, and follow him – that I pray for you, my brothers and sisters, as I hope you will pray for me: in the name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon Ash Wednesday 2013 (evening) 


  1. Thanks for posting this sermon - a model of the teaching that should accompany the introduction of ashes in any CofI parish.

    1. thanks BC. A little lesson I learned the hard way. You'll notice I posted two sermons yesterday, one for the morning & one for the evening? At morning Mass I hadn't realised (being my first Ash Wednesday in the parish) that this was something new for most of my parishioners & so had a very low number coming forward. So I went home, wrote a new sermon, & had a far greater number coming for ashes in the evening.