Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
text: 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
So, how quickly will you wash off the cross of ashes from your forehead?
It’s always the question, isn’t it? Will you be where you don’t want people looking at it? Do you care? Our children always had an eagerness to get washed off pretty soon after church.
I’m not sure it matters. But this does: how quickly will you forget that you had a cross of ashes on your forehead? How soon will “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” be shunted to the attic of your brain, not to be thought again?
Our world is terrified of that truth. So terrorists have power over whole nations: we’re afraid to die and they threaten us with death. So billions of dollars of profit are made by companies all over the world promising pills or creams or foods or clothes or cars they say will make us young, invincible.
Yet we come here today and have burnt ashes drawn in the shape of a torture device on our foreheads. How strange is that? We come here today to be told we are dust, we are going to die. We don’t think like the world.
Unless we wash this out of our minds as quickly as off our foreheads as soon as we get home. Our challenge is to understand and embed in our hearts and lives what it is we do today, why that cross, those words, need to stay with us as if they were permanently visible not only to us but even to others.
The world considers such talk of death morbid. It’s really the opposite.
Living in a culture and society where every single person will die one day, every one, yet where our emotional, financial, physical, and mental energy is expended in vast amounts to deny that reality, that’s morbid. If you’re on the Titanic and it’s going down, it’s not morbid to recognize something’s amiss.
For us, there is joy and hope in what we do today. To look at a little child with a cross of ashes on her forehead next to an octogenarian with the same is to see that both share a humanity, a life, that is finite. That’s truth. But to look at those two together is also to see in that cross shape that this life they share is grace and light.
Placing a cross of ashes on ourselves doesn’t make us mortal, it reminds us we are. Facing or not facing our mortality isn’t an option, whether we die young or old, of natural causes or violent tragedy. We are going to die. There is great freedom accepting this truth. Then we can learn how to live with it.
Paul talks of reconciliation with God: our acceptance of our mortality is also reconciliation with truth.
Whether or not the Triune God came to the world in Christ Jesus and ended the power of death, death has always been reality. It’s part of God’s creative process: things live and die and return to the earth to feed other things that live and die. Denying this only leads to anxiety, frustration, fear. Today we reconcile ourselves to the truth that we are mortal, we die, and we accept that. We began in dust, we return to dust.
Yet we belong to the Triune God, creator of all that is, who knows what to do with dust and ashes, who creates life out of dust and ashes from the beginning. In the reconciliation Paul talks about, this God did enter our deadly existence, took on our reality, dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. When Jesus was born he was born into our death, well before the cross.
But our great mystery is the cross, the shape of the ashes on our forehead. In willingly taking on an evil death, God somehow killed death. That’s what we realize at the empty tomb: our truth is still there, we die. But it is all changed now. Jesus takes our mortality, our sin and brokenness and death, and dies with it. When he rises from death, he brings us, too, joining us to the immortality of the Triune God.
We still die. But we die as people joined to the eternal life of the Triune God forever, so death isn’t an end but a beginning.
That’s our joy today. Knowing the whole truth, we can live.
We are marked with a cross of ashes in the same place we received a cross of oil at the font, the same place we mark a cross of water each time we remind ourselves of our baptism.
This cross marks our whole lives, not just our foreheads: in ashes, for we are dying. In oil, for we belong to the Triune God. In water, for we are washed and made new. And everything’s different.
Paul describes the suffering and difficulty the believers have faced: afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, sleepless nights . . . it’s a long list. Yet in this reconciliation in Christ’s death and resurrection, we live that list very differently. We face the same pains and tragedies anyone does. But we face them as people willing to accept them, as people who know these are not the final truth about us. They have no power over us.
We are seen as impostors, then, Paul says, as people who live as if there is a greater truth others can’t see. And there is, so we are not false but true.
We are unknown to the world, Paul says, confusing, odd, because we live both in the truth of our mortality and in the truth of God’s eternal love. But we’re well known to God.
We look as if we have nothing, yet we have everything; we face sorrow head on but are rejoicing.
And we are dying, we claim it, accept it, but we are really alive in God now and always.
The cross is always on our forehead, on our bodies, on our lives.
There’s a story, I don’t know if it’s true, that some church used lighter fluid to burn palms for their ashes, and the petroleum residue gave slight burns to the people’s skin, so that even after they washed there was a bright red cross for a day or so.
We won’t have that bright red mark after we wash. But the cross on us is just as indelible. It reminds us that our journey of faith travels through suffering and hardships, even to death, with God’s grace and hand supporting us, giving us life. Our cross reminds us that the cross of Christ transforms our deadly truth, so we find hope in despair, light in darkness, life in death.
This cannot be washed off of us, thanks be to God. The waters of baptism have covered us forever in this life in the midst of death, this green shoot out of our ashes.
So we rejoice, and hope, and live.
In the name of Jesus. Amen