Ash Wednesday

I delivered the homily at our Ash Wednesday service this year. Here it is.

I hope you all have a blessed Lent.

Isaiah 58:1–12
2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2
Luke 4:1–14

In his play Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot tells the story of the martyrdom of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1170. As agents from the king come to kill him, Becket preaches his final sermon in the cathedral on Christmas morning. He reflects in the sermon upon the paradox of celebrating Christ’s birth in the midst of a mass centered on Christ’s death. Joy and sorrow are not as far from one another as one would initially think. In his sermon, he turns to the topic of the martyrs. So to, with them. We rejoice that these departed brothers and sisters can be counted among the saints around the heavenly throne even while we mourn that they have been killed for their faith. Then, in an aside, Eliot has Becket note that, “saints are not made by accident.”

If the season of Lent had a tagline, that would be it. “Saints are not made by accident.” The stories of saints are not stories of people who waited until they had finished school, secured an income, created a stable family to follow radically after Jesus. No, the stories of saints are stories of what Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction,” —the direction toward the cross. They are stories of intentionally following Jesus through the practice of everyday life. It is not extraordinary actions or miracles that make a saint, but ordinary faith, simple virtues, and unseen service.

Lent is a season of waking up to ourselves, of reminding ourselves that this faithfulness thing doesn’t happen by accident or when it’s convenient. That is why during this season before Easter we divest ourselves of distractions and luxuries, of habits and attitudes, so that we can intently look into the mirror and see the self that is really there and not the self we want to be there. Self-awareness, like sainthood, does not happen by accident.

And as we look at ourselves so that all our failings and imperfections are clearly visible, we take the difficult next step, confession. For Lent is not simply a season of increased self-awareness, but of growth in Christian virtue. So acknowledging our sin and skewed perspective must lead to clearing the way for growth. When we finally awake to the imperfect self in the mirror, we gather together to confess our sin and cultivate a penitential attitude in our lives. We begin, then, by drawing upon the Old Testament practice of mourning; we begin with ashes. After we come to our senses like the younger brother in Jesus’ story, we confess that we are not the selves that we thought we were. We confess that we are not the center of the universe, but simply a small part of God’s creation; we confess that we are, as the psalmist says, shoots of grass that spring up in the morning but by evening are dry and withered. We confess that we are not the servants of God that we want to be; and we even confess that we don’t always want to be God’s servants. We confess it all. Together. Here.

Lent is then a time of taking an inventory of our lives, of finally noticing all of the rubbish we’ve picked up along the way: cynical attitudes, addictions, distractions and unforgiveness. We confess it and we put it down. But it doesn’t stop there. Lent isn’t about becoming the best me I can be. We don’t just set down that which is weighing on us, we have to pick up something too.

In his fantastical vision of living creatures and dragons, of angels with trumpets and elders with crowns, John the Revelator has a curious phrase. As he is describing the people of God, the people who’ve been marked as God’s own, he says that “these follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4). The Lamb he speaks of, the one who was slain and now lives and rules holding the keys to death, is Jesus. If you want to know who the people of God are, then look who is following Jesus. During Lent we set our compass once again, and follow Jesus. That is the theme of our book of Lenten reflections—“Walking with Jesus.” As we walk with Jesus, we go to some strange places.

We go into the wilderness for forty days; we walk into synagogues, proclaiming jubilee, we sleep on boats and eat fish sandwiches on hillsides. We eat at the table of teachers of Israel, and with sinners and tax collectors. But if we follow Jesus long enough, we’ll eventually make it to Jerusalem. And as the palm branches that were so triumphal raised begin to turn brown and wither, we will make our way to a forsaken hill. And there we will die with Jesus. Walking with Jesus means journeying toward our deaths. It means carrying our own crosses.

Our mourning in ashes tonight is not only a mourning over our sin, it is also a mourning over our impending deaths—over the inevitable end of walking with Jesus. But because this death is a sharing in the death of Jesus, it is also a joy. For we know that God will raise us up, as he raised up Jesus.

In just a moment, we will invite you, if you so desire, to come forward to receive ashes, to mourn together. To set aside those things that are weighing us down. And then you will be given a cross as a reminder of what you are called to carry as we journey toward Easter together. This is not an easy journey, and it won’t happen by accident, but together we can inch toward Jerusalem, together we can follow Jesus. As we leave this sanctuary tonight, look around at the foreheads of friends and strangers. These are the ones who’ve been marked. These are the ones who follow the Lamb.

We leave as pilgrims and fellow travelers.