Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021

Posted by on Wed, Feb 17, 2021 in Lent, Sermons

Ash Wednesday

February 17, 2021

I believe the moment of birth
Is when we have knowledge of death
I believe the season of birth
Is the season of sacrifice.  

T. S. Eliot, The Family Reunion

Few years have laid death in our collective paths so much as this year has. Whether or not someone close to you has struggled to recover from covid-19 or has died from it, we’ve all had to think about that possibility, we’ve been asked to pray for someone who is. A couple weeks ago my friend Marie surprised me saying she didn’t plan to get the vaccine because of possible side effects and how quickly the vaccines came out. Both concerns are certainly real. Her husband has a progressive disease that effects his lungs, so he received it already. Marie cares for him as needed and rotates caregiving of her fourteen grandchildren spread about the country to give their parents a break. She is loving and giving and thoughtful. So I had to ask her, what side effect is more worrisome than death? That’s part of the unwanted gift this year. We got time and reason to think about our mortality, and our relationship with God, with others, and reflect on how this peculiarly tragic year has led us to think or act differently about life and death. Who among us has not reexamined what it is we hold dear? What our ’treasure’ is today, and what was so important this time last year. Coming near to death is nothing we hope for, but don’t let that make you run from the closer look we’re being gifted with.

Ash Wednesday we stop to do that very thing each year, and we do so when someone we love dies too. It’s been daily in our paths though — all year long. We focus more on our mortality because it’s Ash Wednesday, and more profoundly this year after enduring what seems a whole year of Lent, we get to reflect on the gift of it from a perspective of faith, having lived that much more closely with it; from dust we come and to dust we shall return. All year long we’ve had the absurd reality that when we most need to, we cannot hold funerals and grieve together with tears, hugs, song and presence. I’m thankful that we can continue to bury and inter the remains of those we’ve lost —in outdoor settings with limited numbers. Doing so I’ve noticed how very personally revealing of an intimate grief people are being in these moments, less ‘holding it all together’ and more open to sharing the depth of both love and grief in these small settings. We are letting this time teach us about things of the very greatest importance in so many ways. Again, from T. S. Eliot, “Everyone gets the experience. Some get the lesson.” Day by day, season after season this year I see you experiencing what is happening around us and making changes in how we respond and what we expect – and doing it so creatively! That’s what we often forget when we think of this day; creative. Creation. It is from God’s Creation-dust we came and to that dust we shall return. Our created-ness is the mark of a loving God.

Many of you either picked up or had delivered ashes for this unusual year, choosing to actively participate in this rite, live faith-grounded mortality with eyes opened to Christ’s promised eternal life. Our Burial Rite says it well, “for to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” Today we use these ashes in a slightly different way, returning to the older tradition of sprinkling them on our own head or upon each other. It’s with a little pinch of your fingers, while the other person bows if needed, and we sprinkle ash on their head or on our own. For those with little or no hair to help hold the ashes from falling immediately to the ground, the monastic tradition was to make the sign of the cross on top of your head. Yes, you may instead make the sign of the cross on the forehead, though part of this year’s ‘gift’ to us is the chance to consider this ritual in new ways. When we bury a body, at the last we scatter a handful of Creation’s dust or earth upon it in acknowledgement of their mortal life now ended, dust to dust we recall, feeling it, seeing it. We do it by placing the ashes into the urn by hand when we inter someone’s remains in our columbarium too. There’s a release which happens inside of us as we do. This year, that dust we come from and return to is not only on your head, it will be on your fingers, gritty, earthy, dark ash from the palms of last year’s Palm Sunday procession. It will stay on your fingers for a little while. As I mourned being unable to mark a cross on your faces in that most spiritual moment with each of you, I realized how this year we find this in a new way on each of your fingers. Every Ash Wednesday my darkened thumb is a potent reminder of what we do together in life and death and faith. Today you receive ashes and you will ‘impose’ them with your own hand. I hope you won’t wash your fingers before seeing this reminder of what we do and of what we believe. 

Every Ash Wednesday we pray what is called The Litany of Penitence. It’s essentially a lengthy confession naming so many ways we might have erred or strayed that it defies me to find anything left out. Episcopalians aren’t generally fixated on sinfulness or confession or penitence. That’ll never be in our marketing materials. Yet look how closely connected absolution and healing are. Yes, our bodies need healing and so do our internal voices when they’re destructive. So do our panful memories of things we have done or that were done to us. This Litany of Penitence gives voice to so many things, personal and collective, done by us or on our behalf we say – or perhaps some were done to you and you’ve carried the burden for a long time. All those things that can cripple our faith can be healed, because wherever there’s faith, there can be healing. ‘I confess’ that too often I hear my own messages of doubt in my thoughts, seeking to swamp me, to distract my prayers, voices borne of past hurts, failures, grief, unfinished spiritual housecleaning. For these to heal means opening the doors of my soul, emptying them out and letting in fresh air and light. It means inviting our Lord into the dark corners of my past and present, to anything I recognize of myself in that Litany of Penitence, to things I can be willfully blind to or have locked away. The light of Christ illuminates those places, opens them to healing, releases me from their power bit by bit. Healing heavy or hurtful memories is much like having sins forgiven, when we come God never says no. 

Repentance is at the heart of Ash Wednesday, but not in service of guilt, shaming, or judgementalism, or even being called out in our cancel-culture world. It is about remembering really; that we are God’s creation, God knows us inside out, forgiving us and loving us unconditionally. In Psalm 103 we heard, “For he himself knows whereof we are made, he remembers that we are but dust.” God is not drawing us close to berate or punish, rather to show us more mercy and grace, to heal us. Yes, we confess every week, and absolution follows, every week. In the reading from Joel today, 

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”

When this is what we keep before us, what we keep remembering about God, then that God who created us greets our weakness or foibles with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, for God remembers that we are but dust. When we remember this, it isn’t a call to bluster up a facade of indomitable strength to hide behind, it sets us free from the need to do so. 

I’m reminded of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold in the seams; for rather than discarding the broken piece as worthless, the idea being is that embracing flaws and imperfections allows the creation of an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art. God sees the beauty in us, can turn our brokenness to strength and our mended forms into faith.

I believe the moment of birth
Is when we have knowledge of death
I believe the season of birth
Is the season of sacrifice.

T. S. Eliot

Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.


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