Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
In many of our worshiping communities, last year’s Palm Sunday branches were burned last night in preparation for today. Last year, those palms had been blessed to “be for us signs of Jesus Christ’s victory” with the plea “that we who bear them in his name may ever hail him as our King and follow him in the way that leads to eternal life” (Liturgy of the Palms, BCP 271). The palms used in joy are now ashes used to mark us outwardly as those who seek to journey together on the “Way of Love.”* In this season, we pray that these ashes will be “a sign of our mortality and penitence” (Ash Wednesday, BCP 265).
Mortality is not new to us: we know that our souls and bodies will be separated through death, whether through illness, accident, or old age. Penitence, however, is generally not part of our daily vocabulary. Penitence, according to our Catechism, is a kind of prayer that has three parts: confession of our sins, a desire to heal the wounded relationships that result from our sins, and an intention to change our way of life (Catechism: Prayer and Worship, BCP 857).
While we focus on our mortality today—to dust we each will return—and will spend Lent focusing on the penitential dimension of the “Way of Love”, this sign of mortality and penitence doesn’t leave us in doom and gloom. The prayer over the ashes comes to a close by stating the purpose of our season of focusing on our mortality and our penitence: We ask God to use these ashes to remind us that eternal life (the cure for our mortality that has already begun!) is a gracious gift (Ash Wednesday, BCP 265). Palms that were blessed for celebrating Christ’s victory now mark us for a season of penitence and reflection upon our own mortality in our journey together.
Every journey has a beginning. At some time in our personal journeys as Christians, we each sacramentally enter into Christianity through Holy Baptism. This ritual washing with water, whether we remember the day or not, whether we were baptized in the Episcopal Church or another Christian community, is the instrumental means “by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God” (Catechism: Holy Baptism, BCP 858). As people baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14), we are called to live more fully into the post-baptismal reality of our restored relationship with God (adopted children) with each other in mission (members of Christ’s Body, the Church) into the assurance of ongoing relationship with God, each other, and the rest of creation (as inheritors of the kingdom of God). Just as those palm branches which are now ashes were used for celebrating and are now used for penitence, our baptism is a baptism into death and life.
As we journey together through Lent toward Eastertide, let us use the gritty smudge of last year’s Palm Sunday pronouncement of Jesus as King of kings to reflect upon how baptism shapes our common life. Let us use these ashes to begin our journey of reflecting upon how our baptism is a baptism into death to old ways (the ways of sin and death) as well as a baptism into life in the Spirit.
How do the seemingly contradictory themes of mortality,
penitence, eternal life, and baptism
shape your thoughts and actions today?
Grant, Lord God, to all who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ,
that, as we have put away the old life of sin, so we may be renewed in the spirit of our minds,
and live in righteousness and true holiness; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect 7. For all Baptized Christians BCP p. 252-3