Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Exult, O dust and ashes

Joel 2.12-18 Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn

2 Corinthians 5.20-6.2 Be reconciled to God

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18 Your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you



Have mercy on me O God, and cleanse me from my sin






If you were looking to clean up a mess, or restore something dirty to pristine condition, my guess is that you wouldn’t automatically turn to a pot of ash to do the job.


You’re more likely to get some water out and scrub things down.


So it is an odd thing, perhaps, that the season of Lent begins with ash, not water, if Lent is, as it is intended to be, a season when we cry ‘ cleanse me, O Lord, from my sin and wash away my iniquity’ (Psalm 51).


We’ll come back to water shortly.


We start with ash because ash tells us where we are.


Ash tells us about mortality, where we came from and to where we will go: ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.


Ash speaks of the grubbiness into which our lives can descend; created wonderfully in God’s own image, a radiant vision that becomes obscured.


Ash is a sign of penitence and remorse; a sign of honesty about the fractured relationship between oneself and God and oneself and one’s neighbour and, indeed, the ‘fightings and fears’ within us and outside us (cf “Just as I am” New English Hymnal 294)


And that’s why Ash is the cleaning material that the Church gives us today as we begin the season of Lent.


Ash speaks of the reality that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. (Romans 3.23)


Ash asks us to be real about sin; sin which is that condition of separation from God that originates in both casual neglect and from our own wills: sins of omission and commission in the traditional terminology.


Lent begins with the outward sign of ash; but is not about externals, but about the interior life, a time when we pray: ‘create and make in us new and contrite hearts’.




Lent does not leave us in the ash, for after the ash comes the water.


That’s in the spirit of the Gospel when Jesus tells us, in effect, not to wallow in dust and ashes.


As the hymn puts it:


Exult, O dust and ashes!

the Lord shall be thy part;

his only, his for ever

thou shalt be and thou art’

Urbs Sion aurea “Jerusalem the Golden”, New English Hymnal 381)


Lent is a time of exultation from the dust and ashes, a season of grace, a time of reconciliation and healing. (cf Ecce tempus idoneum – “Now is the healing time decreed”, Latin Office Hymn, New English Hymnal 59)


Lent is an extended time of preparation and reflection on the promises of our baptism: God’s promise to us; and ours in return to him.


That is why making one’s Confession in Lent is so beautiful, another grace-filled opportunity to reclaim our baptism, ‘when we in humble fear record | The wrong that we have done the Lord: | who, always merciful and good, | has borne so long our wayward mood’ (Ecce tempus idoneum)




Our journey towards Easter begins in dust and ashes, and we turn our hearts, minds and bodies to the living waters of life and liberation.


It is not the water per se that washes us clean, that is an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace of the Sacrament of Baptism: it is that grace and mercy that washes and cleanses, refreshes and rehydrates; just as the water that held us in our mother’s womb broke and we were born into the world, so in the foaming waters of baptism we are born into new life in Christ.


So may the clean-up begin here, tonight: first in ashes and then, in forty days and forty nights time, in the renewing water of Easter.

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