Ash Wednesday

Last night these pillars trembled with our revelry. In our feasting, laughter and gaiety, last night these pillars trembled under the weight of our living. Tonight all has gone silent; the Alleluia lies in its forty day long grave and we are met by a long, quiet procession into the twilight. For tonight we have come not to dine on sugar & fat but on the ashes of our mortality. Tonight we have come to face our death and let it mark our face. All has gone silent, for tonight the One, who mere days ago stood upon the Mountain in taboric light to reveal the whole Glory of God, begins His gloomy procession toward that moment of utter darkness and we are want to tread with Him. All has gone silent save our cry of penitence – the long groaning of a wounded people that must remain on our lips until the grave march is ended. Such is the cry of the Psalmist (of Psalm 130), to which we now turn, to find our own voice amid hers.

“Out of the depths, I cry to thee, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” ‘Out of the depths we cry.” The Psalmist discloses our dreadful circumstance. Like Jonah who sat in the entrails of a beast, we too cry from the depths. What is the deep we find ourselves in? It is this mortal life. Tonight we begin our cry from the pit of this mortal life, plagued by death, plagued by sin, weighed down by our iniquity. Certainly, do we not carve out this grave by the spade of our own sin? St. Paul writes of this (in his letter to the Romans) that it was by sin that death entered this world and so spread to all men.1 “Death” writes the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth, “[is] the invincibly threatening force of dissolution. It is to this place man moves as a sinner.” Death and all its sting looms ever present in this life. Indeed, we all find ourselves in the deep and with reason to despair for the fruit of the tree which the first Adam ate still rumbles in all of us and sits like a millstone within us. This evening we will face with unavoidable certainty, our finitude; the ashes will cling to our foreheads as death holds us in its inescapable clutches; there is none who can avoid it. In Adam all die, in Adam all are born into iniquity. The way of ashes is the path into nothingness.

For some, tonight, the monstrous burden of wickedness seen in themselves will weigh unbearably. They will see all the sins of humanity before them and feel that they must trudge into Lent like Atlas, carrying the whole world’s immense transgression and be crushed beneath its weight. Others might stare into the mortal deep that surrounds them and lament for the passing of the dream, for things not done, for days passing by empty, insipid, and pallid. These are those who do not find themselves bearing a crushing load, but the dull sore of sins of omission. All of us find ourselves in the waters which hurry downward to the abyss, hastening us to death, to the cessation of being and nothingness. Here, in the deep, we recall and roll sin about on our tongues where it sits like ashes. Whether you are being crushed within it by the weight of your crimes or by obscure staleness, the depth is deep indeed. On this Ash Wednesday we must, whether by nature or discipline, we must peer into the deep. But to despair in the tremendous gravity of the situation, in either case, is not our task, tonight for lo, the One who begins His procession tonight is the One who bears it all, entirely.

From the depths of our mortal life we must cry to the one who bears it wholly.

“Who could stand,” the Psalmist cries, “If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark our iniquities?” The depth of our mortal life is deep indeed. Our iniquities are many;
we have perverted the being which our Creator lent us and have fallen, moving only toward the eternal death that is nothingness. For even if not every soul has committed every sin, we have committed the One sin, Adam’s offense, by which we make ourselves our own judge and turn our backs on the Sovereign Almighty. If you have not come tonight to confess some particular vice, you have come to confess this One great scandal. By Adam’s sin we have all placed ourselves at enmity against God. Karl Barth writes that to be human in the world that is unreconciled to God is to be the artificially sovereign creature that finds its pride in regarding the knowledge of good and evil as its most sacred duty and highest good. In Adam we rejected the law of the God of life and fell into the path of sin where we seek justification not from God but from man. In ourselves we have no power, no effective will, no means to enact any counter movement and arrest this fall. If we attempt to chart a pious route, presuming to find God at its end, we only continue to assume the rightness of our own judgment. If we make no such attempt, there too we only acquit ourselves, seek justification from ourselves, and there too commit all sins. We have sinned with Adam and the judgment of the Almighty looms over our heads. Who amoung us could stand?

There is only the One, the Son of God, who by the mysterious and immense love of the Father came to take our place, surrendering to the judgment under which we pass. Let us be sure, it is our judgment He faces, and let us be sure, He bore it to its end. In Barth’s words, “Everything happened to us exactly as it had to happen, but because God willed to execute His judgment on us in His Son, it all happened in His person as His accusation & condemnation & destruction.”
He is the One true man who took the place of us all, in all the authority and omnipotence and competence of the One True God in order that He might act in our stead in all matters of reconciliation with God and therefore consummate our redemption and salvation. No other (no other) could act validly and effectively in this way. We begin our Lenten fast as preparation for His death, His alone. It is His procession to Golgotha for the next forty days, it is His temptation by which we are threatened, it is His Cross that will bear us, in Him. He, the One, Jesus Christ the Son of the Sovereign God, He has gone before us for us. In the end it is He who will make our cry of penitence, He will submit to our destruction and definitely complete it. He came to make himself a greater thief than any in His company; He stole our sins into Him, in the darkest hour he robs us even of our death and from His bloodied lips He will cry our “consummatum est” – it is finished.

Out of the depths we cry to the Almighty and he has heard our plea. He has taken us, in all our desolation and mortal banality up into Himself; He has taken us in His body for this grim procession for us, because we could not tread it alone. But now, how are we to respond? The Psalmist enjoins us: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”

Because we are taken up in Christ, because He is for us, we must discipline ourselves to hope in this season of fasting. Each of the Psalms that echo our penitential cry end in this way: that having faced one’s iniquity the repentant sinner must discipline herself to hope.
Truly, the very cry from the depths itself betrays the innate nature of our hope for in our cry lies the conviction that the ear of the God of Love, will hear, no matter what the depth.

And indeed, we have great reason to hope. St. Augustine, in his exposition of our Psalm this evening writes: “Yea, heed the greatness of the wound but despair not in the majesty of the physician.” The Almighty Judge, the Sovereign, did not abandon we sinners to the deep. He sent His Son to come in our nature, to occupy our muddy flesh, to plunge from the height of heaven, from all His glory, down into the pit of our graves from whence he would fashion our salvation. He came to give us a way out of the abyss, a way out of our plight of ashes to ashes.

In Advent, the Church’s other period of penitence laced with anticipation, our hope & longing are fixed on awaiting our created life to arrive in His incarnate flesh. Now, our hope rests on His death to win our eternal life. For the next forty days we must hope (dreadfully) that our judgment to befall us in Him so that we might be pronounced free in the passing sentence, to be freed by being imprisoned by grace, that our life might be ground on our death, that we might be redeemed and saved by His destruction.

If we have surveyed the depths, we will know our insufficiency in crawling from it, we have seen that He must bear it and we must hope in its happening for there alone lies our path from the depths. Let us wait for the Lord, let us hope in His word, more than watchmen for the morning.

For from the pit of our grave we who wait with hope will see the Word, the Logos of the Almighty, the Christ who came in our nature – we will see Him in the morning 40 days nigh rise again from our ashes, rise again from our dead dust and see His beauty blaze from the wreck & ruin.

What’s more, not only did he come in our nature and rise from this very dust, He promised the same for those who repent and turn to Him, setting their backs against the dark grave of nothingness. He is our way out of the plight from ashes to ashes. And so let us wait on Him and hope for the morning when the dust of our flesh, our bones long dried by death’s slumber, will relive at His command to rise and unfold as flowers in the everlasting Spring. Ashes are the first sign of Lent but not the final, and there we place our hope.

What shape then shall our cry of penitence take? Having recognized our place in the mortal deep, having seen the necessity and reason for hope? Our penitence must turn us to Christ lest it bear no fruit. “Turn thou us, O Lord, and so shalt we be turned’ is our cry. We must in these forty days and on this dark night let our penitence be that by which we are turned toward Christ and so transformed. The alternative is dire indeed.

If we do not survey the deep that envelopes us or if we remain wallowing in the grave carved out by our sin in both we will chain ourselves to guilt. To despair at the grotesque weight of our iniquity alone or to ignore it is to chain ourselves to a guilt that begets only fear, anxiety and ends only in darkness. Augustine charges us that despite our own so deadly wounds it is only “sin with despair [that] is certain death.”

Unless you find yourself in the tomb, you cannot rise, but to weep keeping ones eyes fixed on the grave of sin about them is to become nothing more than a fixture of the tomb to become nothing. To deign to trudge into Lent as Atlas considering only the earthly lusts to which we have stooped is to remain bowed toward them, to be bowed toward the dust. Self-flagellation in this manner is to abandon the God who did not abandon you, denying that it is Christ who bore the true stripes and Christ who releases us from the pit. He beckons you not to be crushed under the weight that only He may bear, but to lose yourself, turn to Him and be transformed.

If we do not recognize that in our penitence we must turn to Christ who holds and carries all of our wretchedness our lamenting can be nothing more than a shackle to the guilt that kindles death. If from your knees you do not raise your eyes to see the gaze of the Almighty turned toward you your penitence can bear no fruit, you will stay forever staring into the pit. For in turning ones eyes to Christ, repenting of all her iniquity, the penitent sinner will be transformed through Him, being one truly freed from wretchedness, grasping the hand of the Almighty to pull her from the deep. Perhaps you have come tonight in defenseless confession and will fall on your knees intimately aware of your culpability. Perhaps you have come tonight not weighed on by sin but only our corporeal complacency. In either case we all must face the wound of the deep.

The words of the imposition will ring true for us all, “to dust shalt thou return” but hear your Lord call from within them: “O my sweet child, do not stare too deeply into your wretchedness, for I carry it in me. I carry you and your finitude. In my Father’s mercy I bear your iniquity. Do not stare too deeply into the grave unless you can see my glory shimmering in the ashes. Know that you are wretched because my light, My glory has revealed it, consumed it and paid its wages. Turn your gaze to me, O sinner, turn to me, O woman, I am the One who came for you in your same powdery flesh. You are still dust, so die and wait for the morning. Then you will hear my voice summoning you through the slumber, ‘Arise, my love, my dear one, Lift your gaze to me, O sinner, and be drawn to the light of Life.”

 

This sermon was inspired by the poetry of Thomas Merton, the theology of Karl Barth and the exegesis of St. Augustine of Hippo.