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

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 - 7:30pm

 

Ashes are a sign of grief and mourning. For the ancients, as for us, it was important that their outward appearance matched their inner state. In the same way as we dress up in black for a funeral, the Hebrews would tear their clothes, put on sackcloth and pour ash upon their heads to show their sorrow.

 

Likewise, the ashes we receive today are a sign of sorrow for our sins – an outward sign of an inward repentance.

 

Lent, we are told, in the introduction to today’s service, is a time of penitence and fasting. A time when Christians can take to heart the call to repentance, and the promise of forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel. But what is this repentance? What is asked of us this Lent?

 

I ask this, because words like Sin and Repentance and Forgiveness can mean different things to different people- different things even to the same person at different stages in life.

 

When we explain repentance to children, we often describe it as ‘saying sorry to God for the things that we have done wrong’. And this is fine, as far as it goes. It matches a child’s experience of coming up, Smack! against the adult authority that sets limits around the things you want to do. We learn the rules by which we need to behave, and we learn to apologise when we break them.

 

But, as we grow, we come to learn from experience that an apology is only the beginning of being reconciled to someone whom we have wronged. We come to realise that many of the rules we have been taught are there to protect us and others from harm. We learn to use our imaginations to feel the effect of our actions of others, and repentance comes to take the form not just of apology, but of a real change of heart, and a willingness to repair the damage we have done.

 

Beyond this, we may then begin to reflect that, though we regret our deeds, and seek forgiveness for them, they seem to come from a place within us to which we don’t have access. That we do not know ourselves as well as we might, and that our journey through life has left us with chinks in our armour- tender places that are vulnerable to the tensions and pressures we encounter along the way.

 

This recognition and acceptance that Sin can be a state of being as much as a way of behaving; a place that we are as much as a thing that we do, means that we may come to understand Repentance as a kind of healing, by which we come to know ourselves, and free ourselves to turn back to God.

 

As, this Lent, we follow Christ out into the wilderness for forty days and nights, where he was tested by the devil, we will likewise construct a wilderness for ourselves. We will deny ourselves the noisy distractions of life. We will seek out quiet places for prayer, and the study of scripture. We will deny ourselves and shift our focus to the needs of those around us. By doing these things we will hold up a mirror to our souls.

But this repentance is a courageous act. What will we find if we venture out into the still solitude of the wilderness? When we look into the mirror, who will be staring back?

 

It takes real strength to face up to yourself, because it means accepting the fact that you are not the person whom you always hoped to be- perhaps the person you were pretending to be. Being honest with ourselves is the painful and difficult prelude to being honest with God.

 

It is telling, in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, that the boy, having wasted his inheritance in a far country, having been forced by poverty to beg a job feeding pigs, feeling such hunger that he longs to eat the swill he feeds them, must first ‘come to himself’ before he resolves to go home and beg his father’s forgiveness. We must turn and be healed, but before we can turn, we must catch up with ourselves, far from the distractions and disguises we create.

 

The ashes of Ash Wednesday are a reminder of our mortality- the dust from which we come, and the death to which we move. They remind us that we have only one life. That today is the day of salvation. God has never left us on our journey through life. He was there at our beginning and will be there at our end. He is the shepherd searching ceaselessly for his lost sheep; the father yearning for his lost child. He has run to meet us in Jesus Christ, and has made the cross, a cruel instrument of death into a means of healing and a sign of love.

Easter waits for us at the other end of Lent. Let’s take these forty days as the gift they are: a time for healing and growth. A time to turn ourselves back to God, and rediscover the joy and peace of living the risen life of Christ as members of His body.