SAYING NO & SAYING YES
As you know, on this day, millions of Christians around the world engage in the ancient ritual known as “the imposition of ashes.” The practice of using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Hebrew people (“sack-cloth and ashes”). Christian use of the ashes goes back to the 2nd century, and it was widely practised by the 5th century.
Ash Wednesday begins the forty-day journey of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is intended to set the believer on a sobering time of self-examination and repentance, in preparation for the renewal of faith one might receive in the observance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the supreme feast of Easter.
Many Christians try to take this time seriously. Churches almost go into a time of mourning, even though Sundays are always “Feast Days”. Traditionally we don’t sing the ‘Gloria’, we don’t have flowers etc – all intended to give the great contrast when Easter joy bursts in! Mothering Sunday come in mid-Lent, often referred to as “Refreshment Sunday”.
As usual, each of us will be invited to come forward to have the sign of the cross marked on our forehead. We will be reminded that we, like the palms that have been burned to make the ashes, will someday turn to dust.
I read of an American minister who, every year after Ash Wednesday, puts the brass bowl containing the leftover ashes on his office desk. Someone who called in for a chat, looked into the bowl and asked in horror, “Whose ashes are you keeping on your desk?” He answered, “All of ours!”
Ashes on our forehead remind us that human life has limits, that it comes to an end, that we all die. The ashes speak of the virtue of humility, of knowing our human limits and knowing we need God. Humility comes from humus, the Latin word for earth. The ashes are symbols of the earth, and a reminder that we are all creatures of the earth.
The famous poet John Donne used to sleep in a coffin to remind himself of the same thing. One person wrote in response, “That’s a tad morbid for my taste. I’ll stick to my bed, thank you, but the ashes from my forehead may smudge my pillowcase.”
Ashes remind us of our mortality, but why ashes in the sign of a cross? Why not a heart for Valentine’s Day, or our initials, maybe? Why a the sign of the cross in ashes? It is, of course, a reminder that our Lord Jesus paid the price for our sin – the sin of the whole world, for all time in his crucifixion (even if we know the story did not end there in failure).
Why be reminded of our human mortality and sin? It is to encourage us to sincerely turn from those attitudes and actions that drive a wedge between us and God and embrace those which bring us closer to God.
Lent is really about saying ‘no’ to some things so we can say ‘yes’ to others. At the outset of his ministry Jesus was tempted by Satan to say yes to the chance to use his gifts for immediate gratification of his physical needs, to say yes to the enjoyment of material wealth and the thrill of power over others. He said no to these temptations, and headed into the towns and villages to say yes to long days and nights of healing, teaching, feeding, and exorcising.
During Lent we Christians are called to say no to any habit that comes between God and ourselves. It might be an unhealthy physical habit: unhealthy eating patterns, too much alcohol – or even pornography (a much bigger problem in the church than we might expect). It might be an unhealthy spiritual diet: the habit of vicious gossip, of jealousy of others’ accomplishments, or of consistently seeing the worst in people and situations. It might be indifference to the condition of the homeless and the lonely in our community. It might be the habit of judging and categorizing others to maintain our sense of superiority. It might be the tendency to see our spiritual lives as limited to one hour of worship on Sundays. It might be the habit of expecting unbroken peace and inward joy without putting in the time to cultivate our prayer relationship with God. It might be the habit of facing life’s challenges without really bringing God into the equation.
When we answer Christ’s call to say ‘no’ to destructive practices, energy is left to say ‘yes’ to positive disciplines. We can fill the space and time left by our turning from wrong with some positive disciplines to help us respond or turn to God’s love more intentionally. John Wesley called them the means of grace: prayer, searching the scriptures, fasting, acts of kindness aimed at justice, and regular attendance at corporate worship where we participate in the sacraments and meet God as the scriptures are read and proclaimed.
Just as there are lots of things we may need to say ‘no’ to during Lent, so there are many opportunities to say ‘yes’.
• I will see the good points of a troublesome family member.
• I will show more affection to my spouse.
• I will keep in better touch with my extended family.
• I will improve my understanding of issues of justice for the poor.
• I will do something to care for someone in my community.
In adopting these positive disciplines, even though they may take us out of our ‘comfort zones’, we find new life. As the prophet Isaiah says “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (Is 58:8).
There was a Christian conference at which the platform was dominated by a giant cross, stretching from just above an altar table to the tall ceiling of that room. Across the face of that cross was the word “Yes.”
The cross in ashes on our skin is our “yes” to the kind of Lent Jesus wants for each of us. He wants us to walk with him boldly, saying “no” to that which would slow our steps and saying “yes” to that which would fill our hearts and our actions with love for him and others. The kind of Lent Jesus desires for us is the kind that prepares our hearts for a Saviour who rises from the ashes of death and injustice to bring a new life of justice and joy. That new life begins with this Ash Wednesday. by Revd Alan Price.