Monday, March 3, 2014

Homily: Ash Wednesday: 2014

Remember, O man, that are dust and unto dust thou shalt return

Proverbially the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. Whether that is in fact true or not, I cannot say. But it is the case that the repentant often do return to the scene of their offense. Hence, the famous story about Dr. Johnson. Samuel Johnson’s father was a poor bookseller, who on market days would carry a packet of books to the village of Uttoexter to sell from a stall. One day when his father was sick he asked Samuel to go and sell the books in his place. But out of pride he refused to do so. Fifty years afterward Dr. Johnson, now celebrated author and compiler of an English Dictionary, went to the same market-place, to the same place where his father’s stall had stood, and stood bare-headed in the rain for an hour. Often words fail even the greatest connoisseurs of words. 

And because words can fail it is that little smudge of burnt palm on our forehead which gives this day its name: Ash Wednesday, the day when we return to the scene of the crime. The ashes refer not only to the fact that that one day we shall we lose something, namely our life in this world, as the pagans thought,  but more importantly they mark us out as men who have already lost something. We are ‘poor banished children of Eve’ who have lost Paradise, the life in God’s garden, death being the consequence. God says after our disobedience “remember, O man” – that is, in the first place  “remember, O Adam” and just as surely when the priest he puts the ashes upon your head identifies you with Adam. Remember that I made you from the dust and placed you in the Garden but you have chosen to return to dust.  So now we all live in the ruins, the burnt out garden, clothed in the crumbling rags of our former glory.

All through Lent we are always returning to the scene of the crime. Walking Friday after Friday the Way of the Cross, we may flatter yourselves  by identifying with Pilate’s wife or Simeon or Veronica or with the Blessed Mother but by the time we reach Palm Sunday we realize that we are the ones saying “crucify him, crucify him.” We are Judas in our betrayals, Peter in our denials, we are the Apostles who cannot watch with Him one hour

What are our Lenten confessions, our self-denial and our fasting except standing in the rain pouring down on us at Uttoexter market?

Yet that is not all there is to it. The Prayer Book traditionally orders the Collect for Ash Wednesday to be prayed everyday in Lent.  This is in fact not the traditional medieval collect for this day but a prayer which Archbishop Cranmer pieced together from the old Latin Blessing of the Ashes which began with these words:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made –this too is what we find, when we remember that we are dust and when we return to the scene of the crime: God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. Even in the midst of our condemnation God says to the serpent:  I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Already we can on the distant horizon another Mother and Child, a manger, angels, shepherds, wise men. Already we see the Man on the Cross by whose wounds we are healed and hear Father forgive them.  Already even in the midst of our rebellion the felix culpa - happy fault - of the Easter Exultet can be faintly heard:  O happy fault of Adam that merited such and so great a Redeemer. 

The ashes are a sign that there is something wrong with us, something terribly wrong with us, something that we cannot blame on someone else, something which we cannot explain away with sociology or psychology. Still that mess is fashioned into a Cross, a cross which is ugly and unattractive and repugnant as the Cross of Jesus was. 

But no sooner is it applied  than  the ugly smear on our foreheads is being washed off and being replaced with the Cross of Chrism, of Baptism.  The Cross, folly and scandal that it is, is being raised so that all men can be drawn to Jesus.  Already there pours from the side of the Crucified that sacramental flood of Blood and Water. Already we see at a distance  the Church that wonderful and sacred mystery . . . the working of God’s providence . . . the plan of salvation . . .things cast down  raised up . . . the old being made new . . . all things being brought t0 perfection.

But we must begin with the ashes because you can only hope to see these wonders and signs, if you return to the scene of the crime,  from Uttoexter market, from the ruined garden, from the vantage point of Calvary.

Remember, O man, that are dust and unto dust thou shalt return

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