It was my turn this year to offer the Ash Wednesday homily. I found it a bit difficult to write a homily for this occasion, largely because the scripture readings, the invitation to a holy Lent, the imposition of ashes, and the litany of penitence pretty much say everything that needs to be said. So I kept it very short and to the point.
[Listen to the homily here.]
Ash Wednesday confronts us with two truths we probably don’t like to dwell on and which our culture encourages us to minimize, deny, or simply ignore.
The first truth is about sin. To be human is to be a sinner. We have a problem that no amount of education, therapy, or will power can eradicate, a predisposition to seek our own wills rather than the will of God. It’s a sickness that goes to the very core of our being, distorting and at times severing relationships with God, with other people, even with all of creation. Again and again, we fail to do the good we know we should by falling back into the very patterns of thinking and behaving we know we should spurn. And we are powerless to cure ourselves.
The second truth Ash Wednesday confronts us with is mortality. We are all going to die. That truth will be powerfully underscored in just a few moments when ashes are imposed on our foreheads in the sign of a cross accompanied by the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We are sinners and we are going to die. Focusing on these truths may seem harsh if not morbid. But it’s only by honestly facing and accepting these truths that we can then move on to embracing another, more powerful truth. If we listen carefully, perhaps we can hear this truth in the prayer over the ashes when the priest asks that “we may remember that it is only by [God’s] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 265). That prayer points to the good news that God responds to our sinfulness and mortality, not by abandoning us, but with a decisive intervention that can do for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves.
Yes, we are sinners who cannot save ourselves. But there is One who can save us. Yes, we are going to die. But there is One who loves us so much that He graciously gives us the gift of everlasting life. That One is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Lent is a particularly good season for facing the truth about who and what we are, while also remembering the One to whom we belong. It can be a difficult journey. It’s never easy to name and own our sins, much less to accept the reality of death. But the first step of true repentance – of turning around and starting the long walk back home – is admitting that there’s a problem, confessing what we have done and what we have failed to do, admitting that we’ve strayed far away, that we’re lost, that we need help, and then acknowledging that our only hope for help is in God.
As we journey through these 40 Days of Lent, may we remember that the God we know in Jesus Christ is greater than our sins and that through His resurrection He has won a decisive victory over death – a victory that we share by virtue of our baptisms. And may we never forget that, standing with outstretched arms of love, Jesus beckons us to come back home to Him for forgiveness and healing.