A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

This sermon was preached in St Andrews church, Zurich by the Assistant Chaplain, the Revd Jackie Sellin, on 2 March 2022.

The associated readings are Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51: 1-18; Isaiah 58: 1-12; 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6:10.

“On the way …we stopped for a few moments’ break. There was a series of burnt huts to our right, and I walked a few metres towards them. Around me rose ash. In fact it was the Monday before Ash Wednesday. The ash rose in clouds, settling on me …and as I walked I realized the ash came from those who had been burned”.[1]

Those words are from Justin Welby, writing about Ash Wednesday, describing visiting a war-torn part of Africa. And on the news over the past week we have seen more ash falling around Ukrainian cities and countryside. Ash from buildings, vehicles, missiles. And from the dead: civilians, doctors, teachers, children, and military on both sides. Welby describes the ash he saw as “ash without hope: rising in clouds to call all who saw it to acknowledge human evil but not to promise anything better.” Is this the type of ash we see on our tv news today?

Going into Lent from today, we need to think afresh about what we mean by Lent, by Ash Wednesday. What are we doing here? When darkness is spreading across the world, and ash is falling in cities and towns, why do we sit here are seemingly look into ourselves and away from the horrors others are facing? Is it just about giving up chocolate, alcohol, using the lift? Or is there more to this season of the church’s year? Pope Francis has called on all Christians to see today as a day of fasting and prayer for Ukraine. Yesterday evening, the Diocese in Europe held a service of prayer for Ukraine. And the sacrifices those remaining in Ukraine are undertaking seem far deeper and more meaningful than any of the “sacrifices” we traditionally do at this time. So what is the point of all this?

Welby goes on to explain that Ash Wednesday makes us think about our actions and how they affect others. More importantly, it makes us think about sinfulness and evil – the sinfulness and evil we are all capable of which has been thrown into the light of day by the events on the news. This is a time for contemplation of what humanity can do – both for the good and for evil. To acknowledge our sin and make amends before God.

The readings this evening also challenge our attempts at fasting and sacrifice: “Look you serve your own interests on your fast day; you fast only to quarrel and fight” says Isaiah. Jesus in the Gospel challenges our reasons for fasting – are we fasting to look good to others, or for a higher purpose, for good, for God. Again, Isaiah gives us the purpose: “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free … to share your bread with the hungry, house the homeless, cover the naked.” When we are marked with the ash today, and go out bearing our mark, is that to show how pious we are, how holy, or is it a sign of our inner repentance of our sins, of the sins of the world? Is it in solidarity with those whose ashing is not chosen, but the result of actions taken by those who wish evil? An ashing which they cannot control.

This Ash Wednesday is more important than most. Not just as the start of the journey to the cross and eventual resurrection, but also to help the world repent. To help begin to turn the hearts and minds of those who seek to oppress and turn them towards freedom and peace. It is a time to pray for others, to pray for ourselves, and to reach out: again Isaiah was here before us: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be as noonday.”

Because there has to be hope. For us, through repentance and reflection, and for the world through our acts of kindness, generosity, selflessness and shouting out to the world their sins. Standing up for the oppressed. Seeking a divine treasure, not treasure on earth. As Welby says at the end of his chapter: “A good Lent starts within us. It moves through those most closely around us. It comes into the Church and it must be so generously experienced that it overflows into society … and for that we pray, “may your kingdom come.” Amen.

Reference: [1] = A Good Year, Ed Mark Oakley 2016, SPCK pp53-66

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