- Parish House
Sermon for Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
It’s a little strange that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day share the same day, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s not quite as strange as Easter and April Fool’s Day coming on the same day this year. But that’s a problem for a later sermon. Today we stick with what Hallmark and the church give us – a mash up of chocolate and ashes, love and mortality. Picture pastel candy hearts that normally say things like “Be mine” sporting a more Lenten message, like “Ashes to ashes.”
To make this day even more strange for our household, my valentine is traveling to Alaska today. He’s about to enter two winter races on his fat bike – that’s a bicycle with extra wide tires that you can ride over snow. These events will prepare him for his ultimate future goal of riding the 1,000-mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome. The classic dogsled course opens up to bikers and snowshoers every February. To compete, each athlete must be self-sufficient, bringing all the gear and food they need for a winter adventure. I might add that in order to win my support for this undertaking, I was assured that no wolves or bears will be participating in the event.
We’ve been watching the winter olympics to get into the spirit of this upcoming adventure. I am always so moved by the remarkable human achievements of the athletes. I admit I get a little teary watching people win, or lose, or overcome whatever hardships they have faced to get to the games at all. The coverage capitalizes on this, of course. Maybe I’m not the only one who has gotten a little choked up by an athlete’s personal story or even a Toyota commercial this year. We teased Jason that we would make one of those slightly emotionally manipulative back story videos about him. Picture a ten-year-old picking himself back up after a bicycle crash in the schoolyard, with a busted bike but an undaunted spirit to pursue his dream, as told with piano music and the strange colors of old home movies. And then we would fast forward to footage of him riding solo in the quiet snow, with Dinali in the background, determined to cross the finish line with the trail still stretching out endlessly before him. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that video would be good enough for prime time on NBC.
Well, whether or not that’s true, the picture of that ride in my imagination seems like a fitting image for this day day of both love and ashes. Valentine’s Day is about the passions that drive us, especially toward the objects of our affection, but also about our loves in general – the forces that lead one, say, to a love of winter endurance sports. Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, is the day when we lay those passions bare, and bring them to light for examination. Those things that drive us can sometimes lead us astray and get us off course. In the language of St. Augustine, what drives us can get misdirected or pointed in the wrong direction. We then find ourselves in sin, in all of its glorious variety.
The observance of Ash Wednesday invites us to strip away the distractions of our lives in order to reflect on this. Like a cyclist on a quiet, snowy trail, without a hotel or entourage or the fanfare of the start line, this day of fasting and prayer offers us insights that can only be gleaned away from the daily distractions of our lives. It’s not easy being without those distractions, but it’s good for the soul from time to time.
The church, in its ancient wisdom, understood this. For centuries, the church has commended this day for prayer, for fasting, and especially for penitence for all the ways we get off course. And Jesus had some advice about this. He was clear that as we do these practices, we shouldn’t do them for show, or for credit, or sympathy. On this day we are to get a blessed break from being concerned about the reaction or judgment of others. We should do these practices with an interior focus, because to do so is simply good for the soul. Our souls need to be freed from daily distractions and from the scrutiny of others from time to time. This helps us to reconnect with God, and to realign our passions once again with all that is good and holy in our lives.
The church also commends the receiving of ashes in the sign of the cross on our foreheads. This is a reminder that one day our passions will cease, our race will be finished. And the view from that finish line is a gift. It’s an invitation to sharpen our focus, like a solo athlete on the trail, letting distractions fall away to concentrate on what’s true, here and now. Ashes remind us of the training that our hearts sometimes need while we’re still on the course – a yearly crash course in penitence and honesty for a more faithful race.
Most of us will not go riding our bikes in the wintery Alaskan wilderness. But in a recent interview, one of the event’s superstars, Jay Petervary, offered some words of wisdom for all of us. “Embrace the journey,” he said. “Live in the moment… Know you have everything you need. Slow down and think about the ‘work’ you need to do. Do your ‘work.’ You can do more than you think you can.” That’s decent advice for Ash Wednesday. The church invites us to slow down on this day, and think about the work we need to do on our own hearts. The letter to the Hebrews has very similar advice, just a bit older than Petervary’s. It goes like this: “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1). On this day of love and ashes, let us be reminded that we have everything we need, and we can do more, even love more, than we think we can in the race that is set before us.