Joel 2:1-17 Psalm 103.8–18
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
May these words and our thoughts be acceptable to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Our Psalm says “We are but dust” and our Rite of Imposing Ashes says “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Well that’s not too promising is it ? Is that all there is ? You remember of course the dystopian song of that name by Peggy Lee. It’s all for naught ! There is nothing to look forward to ! When we are done – we are done ! We may as well pick up our toys and go home now and as Paul is so often misquoted as saying and out of context to boot “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Why bother with Ash Wednesday, or Easter or any Sunday if that’s all there is !
But how can that be true ? Dust or clay, which are basically the same thing, are inert and we have all seen the dust billow as farmers dress their fields during a hot dry spell. Dust and clay have no energy in them. They have no morality, so overeating or drinking to excess as Paul infers does not matter to us if that is all we are. Dust and clay have no conscience nor will nor desire to do either right or wrong because morality just plain doesn’t apply to them, they don’t even apply to flora or fauna, plants and insects, especially the locusts that Joel describes in our first reading today. They just do their plant and insect stuff – that’s what they do, that’s all they do. Joel tells us that the Day of the Lord will be like a plague of locusts missing nothing and stripping all things of their outer shells, exposing the core of their Nature. The Day of the LORD sounds bleak to say the least. But really it is a Day when all that encumbers us will be stripped away, our greed, our pride, our sins. It will be a good Day, a refreshing Day for our souls.
There is some truth that we are clay. Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) one of the building blocks of life is found in the inert material of primordial clay, and from it came the first organisms so Genesis is not far off the mark in what it says by any means, but there is something else. Quoting Genesis 2:7 “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”. And there’s the difference. We have had the breath of life breathed into us. Breath is life, breath is spirit, the breath of God is spirit. The animated clay, which is us, will indeed return to its lifeless form when we die, but what does not die is the breath that was breathed into us, the breath of God, the spirit of God, which formed our eternal spirits. Our spirits do not return to the ground they return to God. How then should we honour God for the gift of life ?
Listen again to these amazing words of St. Paul, which I hope we can carry through Lent this year. He says “as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. That is an amazing speech that I hope sets the tone for our Lent, when we will rejoice in the hardships and the triumphs of life, because with God we will overcome, and that is why we will rejoice at Easter, even Death has been overcome.
So Ash Wednesday is important, it’s not an idle activity, or a theological construct, it has meaning in itself. It is the day for us to start really honouring God for the wonderful gift of life we enjoy that has been given to us and the Salvation that is ours. We are made of inert matter, and like all things matter we will decay and return to dust, but we will not ‘die’ we will live forever, because we have the spirit from God within us, which cannot be destroyed. Thanks be to God. Amen.