From the Ground -  Lent Sermon Series 1 - Ash Wednesday

Many years ago I heard a theologian ask this important question: must God be glorified at the expense of man?1 The worship of Ash Wednesday might easily push us toward that point of view. We know well the most striking and memorable words of Ash Wednesday’s solemnities: ‘...you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.2

 

The reference to ’dust’ may strike us variously. If we’ve dealt with cremated remains, then we can actually picture and feel what such a ‘return’ looks like, and even what it weighs. As the religion of the Hebrews developed, the more random dust of the earth was a sign of penitence or mourning, thrown over the head and body of the penitent, as the prophet Daniel did when, in exile, he sought forgiveness for his fellow Jews.3 Religious behaviour like that we can see in Muslim countries still.

That association is primary on Ash Wednesday since it’s, above all, a day of penitence at the start of Christians’ chief penitential season.

And that explains, I suppose, why we don’t hear the words of the Bible itself from which Ash Wednesday’s most memorable words are taken: ‘By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return’ (Gen. 3.19). Those words come at the end of the story of humankind’s creation and first disobedience to God’s good purposes for humankind.

It’s important to note, though, that the phrase about dust, ‘dust you are and to dust you shall return’, needn’t in itself carry a punitive sense, even though we readily hear it that way.4 The punitive element of that verse (it’s God who is speaking) comes first: ‘By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread...’. And we shall do so from cradle to grave, the Creator declares, ‘...for out of the ground you were taken, you are dust and to dust you shall return’. Those words remind us of our creatureliness; they remind us (amongst other things), that is, of the finitude which characterizes us, along with every sentient being in God’s good creation. So, I suggest, the latter part of the verse isn’t punitive; it’s simply a statement of fact. We are ‘formed from the ground’ in our material, physical being; then into that God breathed ‘the breath of life’ so that humankind became ‘a living being’ (Genesis 2.7).

To ‘remember that we are dust’ is, then, to remember, first, that God has created us from the material constituents of the physical world, and, second, that, in breathing his breath into us, we are made in God’s ‘his image and likeness’ (Genesis 1.27).

So, what does the placing of ashes upon our heads signify to us?

Of course ashes signify our mortality: 'a time to be born, and a time to die', as the Teacher tells us (Ecclesiastes 3.1).5

Surely, too, ashes signify sorrow for sin. But can we clarify what that means a little more? One of things to remember about the Bible’s understanding of human sin is that it began as an attempt to avoid who and what we are. We were created ‘from the dust of the earth’ as creatures with all the complexity, pains and pleasures of finite, embodied existence.

The serpent’s temptation, to which Adam and Eve succumbed, was to become ‘like God’ (or ‘gods’), that is, to become, or at least behave, as something other than we in fact are. The story limits that 'becoming like God’ to knowing good and evil, but Christian tradition has seen the consequences of humankind’s fatal rejection of what it was created to be in every department of human experience.

My point is that our fundamental sin, as distinct from our particular sins, is our impulse to be other than we are and other than we are meant to be according to God’s good creative purpose. To ‘remember that we are dust’ is to remember that our life with God, our knowledge of God’s ways, our obedience to his will, our worship ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4.24) happen within and through our creation as embodied spirits. The constituent aspects of our creatureliness are the ways and means by which we make our return to the majesty on high.

That is challenging for us. The scripture readings we hear today emphasize in diverse but complementary ways how hard that is for us. Isaiah reminds us of the tragic gap between our outer world and our inner world; bodily fasts, for instance, should engender the will's withdrawal from the world's habits of injustice (58.6). Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians celebrates how the clay jars of our humanity can receive an extraordinary power (4.7). And St John's vivid episode of the woman caught in an illicit sexual encounter (among its numerous spiritual lessons) illustrates how we can commodify the body and the pleasures it affords, thus forgetting how it is meant to be a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Behind those three examples stands this difficulty: how we use and co-ordinate the interior and the exterior. I mean, more concretely, how we live and express our inner selves through our outward, bodily selves.

There have been and are Christians who suppose that the body is a mere necessary hindrance to genuine ‘spiritual’ life. That was the view captured so popularly by John Whittier in his hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’:

...let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;

speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,

O still small voice of calm. 6

 

Dumb sense; flesh exiled—a Non-Conformist metaphorically bowing his head to the philosopher Descarte's pernicious maxim: 'I think, therefore I am'.7 In other words, take the body out of the equation!

The fact is, though, we need not denigrate our humanity, and status as embodied spirit, or as en-spirited body, so as to live for and into the high calling God wants us to embrace. The best ‘ways and means’ is to be ourselves, and that means to live, to worship, to pray, intentionally with our bodies.

With a different season in mind, the late-Victorian Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, Scott Holland, once preached a sermon entitled 'the Word was made flesh'. He was keen to emphasize the downward, earthward, thrust of God's glorious saving work in the taking flesh of his eternal Son.

The root of our revelation lies in the dignity,

the work, the honour, that is brought in upon

the flesh of man. It becomes the assured

Temple of the Word; it receives into itself

the glory of God... The Incarnation is the

measure of God's respect for human nature

He places His Son under its limitations... He

devotes Himself to saving, illuminating, re-

deeming it; and this out of supreme love

for it, which forbids Him to leave it to its

sins, or to slay it for its guilt, or to desert it

for its shame. God so loves it—loves the

human, loves the body, loves the earth—

that He sent His Son to win it again into

glory....8

 

A clay pot, yes, and destined to decay. And yet the human body is the place where the immortal, invisible God touches us, breathes upon and into us, and prepare us, as God's own temple, for a transcendent glory yet to come.

With his eye on that glory to come, St Paul encourages believers now to glorify God in their bodies.

Earth, ashes, dust—the ground from which God has fashioned us is not just our source. It remains our companion through, and with which we construct, this earthly life. It reclaims us at our death. And when the whole cosmos is transfigured, the earth, the ashes, the dust that is you and me becomes once more and anew a temple of praise to the Creator of heaven and earth.

When St Bernard, many centuries ago, pondered the Christian hope, he too saw our perfection as a continuous transformation of the ground from which we were first fashioned. He put it like this:

Exult, O dust and ashes!

The Lord shall be thy part:

His only, his for ever,

Thou shalt be, and thou art!  9

In that hope we receive the ashes tonight, so that in joy we might learn anew how to honour God in our bodies.

~

 

Preached by The Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

Ash Wednesday, March 1st 2017

 

 

[1] That was A. M. Allchin's interpretation of a posture David Jenkins argued against in his 1966 Bampton Lectures The Glory of Man (London: SCM, 1967).

[2] The Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, in Common Worship: Times and Seasons, p. .

[3] Daniel 9.3; one of the appointed readings at Morning Prayer on Ash Wednesday.

[4] The English word 'dust' used in the rites of Ash Wednesday is not an inevitable translation of the Hebrew 'aphar, which can mean loose earth or, generally, any material of earth. In the passage in question the LXX uses the same word, gē (γη) for the English 'ground' and 'dust'. The Vulgate distinguishes terra (earth) and pulvis (dust or ashes).

[5] And so R. Guardini, Sacred Signs, p. 54.

[6] Common Worship, no. 411.

[7] See Paula Gooder, Body. Biblical Spirituality for the Whole Person (London: SPCK, 2016 ), pp. 23-4.

[8] H. S. Holland, 'The Word Was made Flesh' in On Behalf of Belief (New York: Thomas Whitaker, 1889), pp. 252-3.

[9] John Mason Neale's translation of St Bernard's hymn Urbe Sion aurea (12th century). The English Hymnal, no. 412.