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Ash Wednesday

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church Windsor NS, AD 2002


As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,

so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

(John 3.14)


Dust and ashes.  Such is the beginning of our Lenten pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a pilgrimage that is essentially our participation in the Passion of Christ.  Yet to enter into Christ’s passion and to reap its benefits means to know the nature of sin and its consequences.  It requires that we understand ourselves as sinners in need of redemption.


We begin with dust and ashes - the symbols of death and repentance.  We begin with the heartfelt conviction of our self-willed distance from God.  By accepting the pronouncement of dust, we accept the judgment of death.  In other words, we identify with the primal sin of Adam and its deadly consequence.  “Remember, O man that thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return”.  We remember this in order to realise that the story of the Fall remains the truth of our daily experience.  Separation from God ultimately means death.  “The wages of sin is death”.


But if we begin and end simply with the consequence of sin, simply with the fact of our separation from God, then there will be no journey, no pilgrimage.  Ultimately sin extinguishes the flame of love and leads to the cold, frozen immobility of the soul.  Without motion, without love, there can be no journey.  “All our doings without charity are nothing worth”.  Ash Wednesday both reminds us of the consequence of sin and marks the first stirrings of divine love in us.  Lent is the pilgrimage of God's love.  “We go up to Jerusalem”, Jesus says.  It is a journey with him in his love for us.

Fire ever doth aspire,

And makes all like itself, turns all to fire,

But ends in ashes”,

but as the poet John Donne also reminds us, it should not be so with love.  The fire of divine love should not end in ashes.  Here we begin with ashes.  Ashes, not dust, are imposed - placed - upon our foreheads.  The ashes are symbolic of repentance and the sacrifice for sin. They are a visible sign to us of the power of God’s love who turns us away from sin and death and turns us towards himself.  The forehead marked with ashes clearly identifies the cause of that separation in humanity’s free, rational will and also indicates that faculty in us which divine love seeks to perfect.  Ashes mark our foreheads, signalling the repentance that turns the soul towards eternal life and away from endless death.

And the Lord said to Ezekiel: Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it. (Ezekiel 9.4)

We are that earthly Jerusalem, full of abominations and the desolations of sin and so we must be those who “sigh and groan” over the sad, sordid tale of all our sorry sins.  Our Lenten pilgrimage seeks at once the destruction of this old Jerusalem and the restoration of a New Jerusalem; at once a dying and a rising to life.  Both the destruction and the restoration require that the ever present reality of our sins be made clear to us.


Yet the simple acknowledgment of sin will not accomplish our restoration.  It will not be by our efforts alone that we enter Jerusalem.  No.  The sin separating man from God must be more than repented of.  It must also be taken away, purged and transformed.  We must see and know this purgation and transformation as the power of the goodness of God which overcomes all evil, just as it underlies the perversity of our wills and the sheer folly of our actions.  We must see the darkness that we have chosen transformed into light, our sin changed into the righteousness of Christ.  We may even to come to know how our sins can be the greater occasion of God’s forgiving grace at work.  “Yet gaily I forgive myself”, sings Cunizza in Dante’s Paradiso, having come to know the triumph of the greater love of God perfecting our imperfect human loves.  We are not yet there, but she signals what we seek.


Yet the restoration of our natures can only be accomplished by one whose will is not, like ours, in disorder and disarray.  It must be in one whose nature is our pure humanity, by one who wills the eternal good purely and freely.  And the restoration must be in him, in his taking upon himself all that is not his, making it his so that he might transform, restore and perfect us.  And we must at once see and will this, only so can we be participants.  Such is the mystery of Christ’s passion.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3.14)

The lifting up of the serpent refers to The Book of Numbers where the people of Israel, plagued by poisonous serpents as a consequence of their hardness of heart, “in the day of temptation in the wilderness”, were delivered from death by contemplating that which had plagued them, namely, “a bronze serpent”, lifted up before them by Moses.  Their remedy was their sin transfigured, but the point is that they had to look upon that which had plagued them.  Their sin was made clear to them.  They looked and were spared.  It was, we might say, a most salutary object lesson.


We contemplate Christ crucified.

Mark in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell,

the picture of Christ crucified, and tell

Whether that countenance can thee affright,....

And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,

Which prayed forgiveness for his foes’ fierce spite”...

For “this beauteous form assures a piteous mind” (John Donne).

We come to Calvary to see our sins made visible in Christ crucified and to know in him the immensity of God’s love. It at once impels and informs our Lenten pilgrimage. We begin with our foreheads marked by ashes in sorrow for our sins. Such is love-in-repentance. Through the passion of him whose forehead bore the Crown of thorns, love-in-sacrifice, we pray that our mark of ashes may be transformed into the name of love-in-glory in that city where “there shall no more be anything accursed; but the Throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it and his servants shall worship him, they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev.22.4). We begin in ashes that we may end in glory.