St John's Church, Harpenden - an Ash Wednesday sermon - 'Dust and Ashes'

From time to time we publish sermons given in Church. This particular sermon was given by Jonathan Smith, a previous Vicar, for Ash Wednesday.

Dust and Ashes

I want to begin by reading four lines from the last of T S Eliot's Four Quartets - Little Gidding

      Ash on an old man's sleeve
      Is all the ash the burnt roses leave
      Dust in the air suspended
      Marks the place where a story ended

To-day is one of the solemn days in the Church's liturgical year. We begin the forty day Lenten journey and seek to identify with Our Lord Jesus in his wilderness experience.

How are things known if not by contrast? Joy with sorrow, noise with quiet, company with solitude.  Each opposite helps to define its mirror image.  It can be very easy to make the mistake of regarding Lent as a gloomy, miserable time.  That would indeed be a terrible mistake.  George Herbert, writing some three hundred years before Eliot was not employing irony when he wrote

"Welcome dear feast of Lent: Who loves not thee, he loves not temperance or authority"

Herbert's use of the word "feast" is interesting and clever.  It makes us sit up and notice because the usual Lenten word is its polar opposite, fast.  Here though lies the ingenious contrast; the Lenten fast for the body is a feast for the soul. Lent is about blessing, about walking closely with the Lord, about growing in spiritual maturity and depth.  Such things are not a privation but a wonderful affirmation of faith.  Lent is not a time for being miserable, albeit that the craving for chocolate which I shall experience in about three days time may tend to make me just a trifle grumpy at times.  The Gospel reading for to-day from Matthew chapter 6 gives unambiguous instruction.  Do not look dismal, it says, leave that to the hypocrites; instead look fresh and healthy.  Lent then is not an excuse for communal breast-beating; such an outward show is unnecessary and undesirable.  Again and again the Gospel reading alludes to the secret, solitary nature of the Lenten observance.  Let your almsgiving be done in secret says Jesus, pray alone in your room and the Father who sees in secret will reward you.  And again, give no outward indication of your fasting but let it be done in secret.  Lent is clearly a time for secrets; the secrets that are known only to ourselves and our Heavenly Father.

The season of Lent and a proper keeping of it is a marvelous antidote to the externals of life which occupy so much of our attention and energy.  "How do I look?" that most obsessive question of our contemporary age is rendered redundant by Lenten discipline.  Such a pre-occupation with appearance is truly something from which we need to be liberated.  Instead we seek to grow inwardly and increase our measure of grace and holiness.

The symbol and name of this Wednesday is Ash. Shortly we shall receive the sign of the Cross, the instrument of our redemption, in ash upon our foreheads.  To the outward appearance our faces become disfigured by the ash cross; in the secret place of the soul we know we carry the sign of Christ's love.  Dust and ashes we say in common parlance to signify when something has come to nothing, to naught.  It's not just the Pentecostal showers which are fiery; Lent too has its fire, burning to dust and ashes our vanities, our self-centredness, our godlessness.  The things of beauty which earth affords are lovely and gladdening to the heart and for them we properly rejoice and give thanks.  A symbol of such beauty might be a flower, perhaps a perfect rose with all its freshness,colour and perfume. In another poem,called Vertue, George Herbert describes a rose so brilliant that it "bids the rash gazer wipe his eye" but yet goes on to declare of it "thy root is ever in its grave, and thou must die".  The inescapable transitory nature of the created order brings all things to their eventual close.

      Ash on an old man's sleeve
      Is all the ash the burnt roses leave
      Dust in the air suspended
      Marks the place where a story ended

But the story ended is only the vain story of the hypocrites about whom Jesus says that they have had their little glory and passing reward.  Our Wednesday Lenten Ash comes in the form of the Cross, that place where the Priest is also the Victim , whose death bestows upon us a life which is imperishable because, being with God, it is eternal.

Jonathan Smith
 



You may also find these of interest:

Our list of sermons

Letters from the ministerial team

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