Ash Wednesday / Lent 1
Anyone know what these are?
They are ashes. Does anyone know what they used to be?
Palm fronds. Did anyone else grow up in a church where every Palm Sunday you’d get one of those little crosses made of palm leaves pinned to your shirt or jacket before the service? In my case they were always attached to me by one of several short, elderly German women with names like Aasse and Walle. They were each about 5 foot nothing, with backbones of iron, and sadly somewhat shaky hands.
These ashes are created by burning those crosses and the palm fronds used the previous year on Palm Sunday. And since I bought these at a Catholic church supply store, I’m gonna go out on a limb and claim that they are actually palm ashes.
I find it very interesting that anyone would go to the trouble of using those palm fronds to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. I have no idea why it’s done that way but it strikes me as profound.
Think of the story of Palm Sunday, which we’ll be hearing more fully soon. Jesus rides triumphally into Jerusalem and the crowds line the street to greet him. They start tossing bundles of palm leaves into the road for his procession to walk on, so that not even the feet of his donkey will touch the dust. It’s like a very impromptu red carpet.
And then, less than five days later, Jesus is hanging from the cross.
What happened to all those palm leaves? What happened to the cheering crowds? The seething masses of enthusiastic supporters? How many of those same people were in the crowd gathered at Pilate’s palace shouting “Crucify Him?”
In the end, those palm fronds represented nothing more than good intentions; they were a failed attempt to honour and glorify the King and ultimately they were trampled underfoot in the rush to Calvary.
Observing the season of Lent is one of the oldest practices of the church, probably dating back to within a few dozen years of Jesus’ death and resurrection and it draws on even older Jewish customs. The idea behind Lent is to take time for reflection, confession, and repentance.
Traditionally, one of the things you’re supposed to do before you take communion is confess your sins, whether privately in prayer, or to a trusted confidant, or to a priest or pastor. Even we have our little shredder there at the back.
The same is true for Easter. Before we can partake in the sheer power of the events of Holy Week: the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, before we are mentally and spiritually prepared for that, we need to spend some time, some serious time, in reflection, confession, and repentance.
So we have these ashes; the remains of all our good intentions, all our enthusiasm, all our failed attempts, all our half-hearted worship and self-centred prayer. All of that is ground up and burned.
But instead of becoming a shameful waste, it becomes something amazing.
It becomes the cross.
The reality and the sign of the death that we deserve but don’t get.
And we mark that sign visibly on our bodies, to remind us of just how much we need that cross, and the resurrection that it leads to. It’s called the Imposition of Ashes, and I’m hoping that you’ll all join me in that tradition this morning.
During communion Lindsay and I will be at the table, with the ashes, and we will mark anyone who wants with the sign of the cross on their forehead, and speak a very old invocation, from Genesis, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a reminder of the natural order of things, and an encouragement to take the events that we’ll celebrate in a few weeks seriously.
(I will be singing the first song this morning with the band, so you’ll have to wait a couple of minutes for me to get up to the table.
And now, just to get us into the right Lenten frame of mind, I’d like us to take a minute to sit quietly and consider what I’ve just said.