A sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz
Ash Wednesday: February 22nd, 2023

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN

Ash Wednesday, 2023: a day to remember we are dust and to dust we will return; a day when the assigned Scripture and liturgical practice clash profoundly; a day to ponder our mortality; a day when we are told how to behave in church; this year a day marked by the weather.

Two scenarios:

The first: a conservative Lutheran Church in West St. Paul in the Fifties and Sixties where being seen was a thing, where what you wore mattered, and going to church was the norm. From a middle class family, I often sat next to my mom and watched my doctor arrive, a bit late, his wife robed in beatiful suits and stylish hats; I watched the high school girls with corsages still on their shoulder from a dance attended earlier in the weekend — screaming the message “ I was asked to the dance,” the male ushers in well-tailored suits, the tall male clergy conducting the service in deep, controlled voices – including the twenty-minute sermon. . . My mom made most of our clothes then, a fact I hadn’t yet learned to be embarrassed by. And yet it was a wonderful place for me, growing up.

The second scenario: Fifteen years ago, coming from being a deacon at St. John the Baptist in Minneapolis (most of them serving with the woman who would become the bishop of Washington) I was told that St. John’s was “a mink coat parish,” now a dated and to some a repulsive term, but conveying that this was a wealthy parish. And it was filled with many people prominent in the St. Paul business and social communities. Men were in suits and ties, women in skirts and dresses – maybe even a few pearls… But overall, we looked pretty much like the congregation I had just left in Minneapolis. And here, too, I discovered a wonderful place, more economically-diverse than it first appeared.

I tell you this because today’s Gospel is clear that religious practice including church should be done “in secret,” a term used seven times in the lesson. Your penitence and generosity should not be matters for public display. Public displays of being religious or pious are not things most of us do at all. In fact, the opposite is true; such things would provide great discomfort for most of us.
And yet – it is an Ash Wednesday world now, awash in pain and tragedy: the searing pictures from Ukraine; the weekly –if not daily– reports of mass shootings; the earthquake in Turkey with thousands of victims; our own personal tragedies, worries, and heartaches. Ironically, the word “Lent,” which begins today, means “spring.” We in Minnesota know differently.

One person puts it this way: “And so we begin today with our death. As morbid as it may sound, the point here is not to mourn, but to reflect. Because that’s what we do when we gather for a memorial service, we reflect on the person we’ve lost. Ash Wednesday gives us the opportunity to do this, in some small way, for ourselves. It calls us to look in the mirror and see who we are at this point and time, to make meaning of our story so far, and to reflect on what parts of us are lost.
We are lost for many reasons, and in big and small ways. We have estranged relationships with those in our lives. We have let our personal prayer practices lapse. We are in debt. We are too busy to honor taking Sabbath time. We keep in our possession a lot that we do not use, but from which we refuse to be parted.²

I suggest that Lent calls us not so much to give things up or take things on, but to reboot, as in computer-speak… So I’ll speak briefly about the traditions surrounding Ash Wednesday and then suggest a couple of ways we might move forward into a more intentional Lent.
“A period of preparation and fasting likely has been observed before the Easter festival since apostolic times, though the practice was not formalized until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. It was a time of preparation of candidates for baptism and a time of penance for grievous sinners who were excluded from Communion and were preparing for their restoration. As a sign of their penitence, they wore sackcloth and were sprinkled with ashes. Since the ninth century, it became customary for all the faithful to be reminded of the need for penitence by receiving an imposition of ashes on their foreheads on the first day of Lent—hence the name Ash Wednesday.” This, according to Wikipedia!

The clash between the Gospel and liturgical practice today is explained by the theologian and pastor David Lose: “(In today’s Gospel) No sooner do we finish hearing Jesus tell his disciples that disciples that when they fast they should not only avoid marking their faces but actually clean them that we walk forward to have our faces disfigured with the mark of the cross traced in ash across our foreheads. Jesus does not critique the practice but talks about the reward that is mistakenly sought when doing it to be seen.”

Today, we acknowledge our own mortality. Americans don’t like to think about, much less talk about, death. We are a youth-promoting culture until we are faced with the reality of mortality. Today – for those brave enough to face into it – the reality of death is all over our foreheads. But it is not a meaningless, random smudge, but a cross. Christians believe that mortality is experienced in the form of a cross. And that makes all the difference.

Today the Cross many things: it is jewelry adorning the chest of rock stars spouting hate, it is vilified and misunderstood, and we may not sure enough of our faith to wear a cross ourselves. Some argue that the symbol of Christianity should be an empty tomb instead a symbol of execution. But the cross is the symbol of Christian faith and it is that symbol that is placed on our forehead today.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “The message that the cross calls us to believe is that come hell and high water; come affliction and hardship, come persecution, hunger, nakedness, peril and sword; come whatever may, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord who has promised us that everything, finally, shall be well.

In a way it’s all about dust today. We are made of stardust, a poetic and scientifically-accurate statement. Genesis tells us that God created the heavens first and when stars exploded and burned up (the Big Bang?) that dust fell to earth, and God created all earthy life including human beings out of the dust of the ground, that originated far away. No less a site than Physics.com confirms that 60% of our bodies are water and hydrogen and 40% is stardust.

The ashes today are created by burning what is left of the palms from Palm Sunday — From the green to black in twelve months; from “alleluia” to burned ash. A reminder of our mortality yes, but also, a reminder of our interconnectedness with all of creation, out to the stars above. Today we not only face our mortality, we mark ourselves with the ashes of mortality. Think about what we are doing. This year’s ashes were last year’s palms. We carried them in celebration and triumph last year on Palm Sunday. They were once green and supple, a sign of life and victory. Then they became dry, brittle, and brown. Today they are ash on our foreheads, dust.
Finally, the words of the poet Jan Richardson and the best poem I know about this day:

Blessing the Dust
For Ash Wednesday

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—
did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

So today we remember our mortality, that we are dust and to dust we will return, we remember the Cross, and we remember “what the Holy One can do with dust.”


David Lose, “Ash Wednesday,” Working Preacher, online commentary.
Jan Richardson, “Blessing the Dust,” in The Painted Prayerbook, online source.
Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, 1998.

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