Ash Wednesday 2023
The Very Rev'd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark
Lections: Joel 2.1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b - 6.10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21
The Dean's sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 22 February 2023.
It was the first job of the morning, to sweep from the grate the ash from yesterday’s fire. My grandma would do it carefully so as not to send the grey ash circling round the room, settling on all the surfaces like a grey pall that she would then have to dust off. The grate was swept clean and the ash emptied into the pail, perhaps to spread on an icy path, perhaps to spread in the garden. The ash was the by-product of the heat we’d enjoyed.
We take the palm crosses from last year’s joyous Palm Sunday procession and burn them and grind them and they make a fine dark ash. On the very place where we were marked with holy oil with the sign of the cross at our baptism another cross is imposed. That first cross is invisible to the naked eye – we know it’s there, indelible, part of our nature. The ash cross is for all to see, the mark marking us out on this day, as Christians, as sinners, as repentant and repenting.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning
The prophet Joel calls us back to what we would call that baptismal grace, that baptismal place when we received the first cross, the first mark, that place of innocent wholeness. But our sins have marred us and so we return, to begin again. This ashing is, as it were, a sacramental, deeply symbolic act. It is an outward and visible sign of what is going on, in the deeper, unseen places of our self, in our hearts. As Jesus says to the crowds in today’s Gospel
‘and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’
The Father, our Father, will reward us in that new life, found in the cross and found in Jesus, who knowing no sin, embraced sin to defeat it for you and me.
We burn the crosses, to create the ash, to mark our heads, to seek that forgiveness that we find in the cross, to be restored to that first place of baptismal grace, to be as God would have us be, created us to be.
But if I were to ask you today to create the ash from what you would wish to leave behind on this Ash Day, this Ash Wednesday, what would it be? What would you burn? Eliot writes
Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
What roses would we burn to create the ash, the dust, suspended? What in my life do I need to consign to the flames, so that I can be rid of it, so that I begin again, without it? What would you burn to make the ash, to mark your head, to show before God?
Nanna got up off her knees and wiped her grey ashy hands on her apron. No more ash. She could build a new fire and begin again.