“…faith begins at the point where atheists suppose it must be at an end. Our faith begins with the bleakness and power which is the night of the cross, abandonment, temptation and doubt about everything that exists! Our faith must be born where it is abandoned by all tangible reality; it must be born of nothingness, it must taste this nothingness and be given to taste it in a way that no philosophy of nihilism an imagine.”
--H.J. Iwand, German theologian and activist in the German Confessing Church,
imprisoned for his actions in 1938, later released.
The hard part in writing a sermon is this: to speak reasonably and logically about a subject that confounds reason, transcends logic. Of course, that never stops human beings from theorizing. Theories, theologies, doctrines, dogmas and creeds abound. Screeds, too, sadly.
I’ve spend a lot of time over the years of my ministry reading through books of Lenten meditations. Since I like to keep the Ash Wednesday sermon short, I’ve always sought to find something to share with parishioners: an inspirational reading as a token to carry across the threshold of Ash Wednesday and into Lent.
But other than that H.J. Iwand quote, I’ve never found much to inspire me. Most of the readings in the books I’ve checked were cold or bland or called for a kind of love of suffering that struck me as hollow, theoretical, even a bit self-congratulatory. We don’t need to seek out suffering, it seems to me. “Tomorrow will bring worries of its own,” Jesus is recorded in Matthew as saying, “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
So I didn’t come up with any wise and pithy quotes, something to print on a little card to tape up on the fridge. Nope. But that’s okay. Because most of us come to the Ash Wednesday service not for that, but to receive the take-away token from this first night of Lent: the dark smudge of ash.
Not dust. Not earth. Ash.
Ash is what is left from something that once was. Ash is the symbol of something’s prior existence. Ash is the thing that once was, but now is no longer recognizable; ash is the mark of a thing destroyed. Or, perhaps, a thing set free.
We are told—and I think this is true—that the crucifixion is a great mystery, one not to be explained away by theories (though that never stopped any theologian, half-baked or otherwise, from trying). But one thing we know is that it happened. And it is over.
It cannot be replayed in our own lives or in our restless, guilt-filled hearts. It cannot be caught on screen so that, like voyeurs, we can watch Christ crucified anew, as Mel Gibson tried to do with his horrible movie about Christ’s death.
But through it we are promised that the former things have passed away. The former sorrows and sins and estrangements are reduced to rubble, pulverized into ash as fine as talcum powder. The mark on our brow is the mark of nothingness—that what was is no more. But it is also the mark of our createdness—that our lives remain the works of creation that we and God undertake to craft together.; So that the very same ash, the ash that marks our brows, also and at the very same time, offers us freedom: that out of the ashes something new may rise, something pure, re-formed, whole.
And so we step across the shadowy threshold into Lent, marked with the ash that declares we are free from sin and fitted out for life. As you go into the night tonight, as you go into your day tomorrow—and all the days after that—feel the smudge on your brow that says you are nothing, nothing but God’s. And because you are God’s, you are everything.