This morning, James and I spent a couple of hours at Oakleigh Park Station. We stood on one side of the tracks and a couple of other clergy from neighbouring parishes stood on the other side. We were there to offer commuters the opportunity to be ashed. Quite a few people agreed to be ashed. More did not, and they offered all kinds of reasons. ‘I’m Jewish.’ ‘I’m Orthodox, and it isn’t Lent yet.’ ‘I’m going to Mass later.’ But the most common was ‘No thanks, I’m OK.’
It’s pretty much the exact opposite to the words that we hear in this service. ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.’
One of the hardest truths in the Christian faith is that we are not OK. Yes, God wants and accepts us as we are. Yes, we are all welcome in the Church, no matter what or who we are. But we are not ‘OK’. We are not yet the people God wants us to be. We are imperfect, incomplete. And each one of us has an imperfect relationship with God.
We are not ‘OK’.
Today is a reminder of that. It’s a bit like the practice in the Roman Republic. Victorious generals were awarded triumphs, when they processed through the city with their troops, plunder and captives. They were crowned with laurel and hailed with trumpets. And on the chariot with them rode a slave, who stood behind his master whispering to him memento homo: ‘remember that you are a man.’
Today is a reminder that we are not OK, but are mortal human beings, in need of God’s constant help. And, what’s more, in need of repentence. Repentence is what Lent is all about. And it’s no easy thing. Repentence is sometimes caricatured as being a quick, momentary action. Some types of Christianity promote that idea. Say sorry for your sins, believe in Jesus, and all’s well and good. Well, I have to tell you that it isn’t that easy. Repentence means a complete and utter change of direction. Not just saying sorry. It’s not even ‘say sorry and this time sound like you mean it.’ It’s ‘be changed’.
That’s the Christian calling: constantly to be changed and transformed. Constantly to grow closer to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Repentence is a continual action. It is necessary every day of our lives. It means redirecting ourselves constantly to the path of obedience and devotion that Jesus Christ showed throughout his earthly life. It means going into the desert with him, rejecting the temptations of the world and the Devil. It means weeping with him as he waits in Gethsemane. It means walking with him on the road to Calvary.
We can’t do that. Because of the frailty of our nature, because of the sin that is in us, we cannot follow him perfectly. We will continually fall away. And that’s the whole point of Jesus Christ. In the person of Jesus Christ, God became a human being. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. And he is a kind of representative of the whole of humanity. He takes our human nature and lives it as it ought to be lived: as a pure offering to God. And that offering is completed, perfected, on the Cross of Calvary. And so all humanity can be credited with the offering of obedience that one human made.
We can’t live that perfect life. We can’t make that perfect offering. We’re not OK.
But we can repent of our sinfulness. We can do the continual daily task of turning from our sin and living in obedience to Christ.
So today, as we have ashes put on our head, we remind ourselves of our broken humanity. We remind ourselves of the need to repent and turn to the way of the Cross.
But you might say that we are directly contravening Jesus’ instructions in our Gospel reading. He tells his followers to repent with clean foreheads and to fast with cheerful faces. Yet here we are putting ashen marks on foreheads.
Well, I do think we have to see the context. Jesus is not attacking the idea of visible marks of repentence per se. No, he is attacking the hypocrites’ concern with the outward symbol rather than the inward action. He’s attacking people who want to be seen to be repenting, rather than occupying themselves with their relationship with God.
It is a regular feature of the Christian life that an outward sign can lead us into a deeper spiritual reality. In the Eucharist and Baptism. In marriage. In physical posture in prayer. In the exchanging of the Peace. In so many ways. We make outward signs and we pray that they may lead us into inner transformation.
And so the sign of ashing is good only if it is accompanied by this internal transformation. It is good only if it calls to humility. To remembrance of our sin. To repentence.
So, when you leave church, think about what the ash is doing. Is it reminding you of these things? Or is it showing to other people that you have been here? If it is the latter, wipe it off immediately. If you feel proud of it, wipe it off.
But I hope that the sign leads you into a closer walk with God this Lent. And I urge you to adopt a Lenten discipline. Specific tasks in which you offer yourself in devotion and obedience to God, following the way of Christ.
Perhaps devoting a particular time in prayer. Perhaps coming to one of the weekday services here in St Mary’s, or in another church. Perhaps saying each morning, ‘God, I offer you this day and all that I do in it.’
Perhaps giving things up – food, particular pleasures, whatever is suitable.
But don’t do it because you’ll lose weight. Don’t do it because you’ll feel good about yourself. Don’t do it to look good in front of someone else.
Do it because, by devotion and obedience, you may draw closer to God. That’s what Lent is about.
And so we pray, Almighty God, for the keeping of a good and holy Lent, that we may be drawn closer to you though obedience and love and grow into the likeness of your Son Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen.