Tag Archives: Ash Wednesday

The Cross, that strange sign of Life (Ash Wednesday, Year B, 18 February 2015)

Isaiah 58.1-12
Matthew 6.1-21

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.

So the psalmist prays in the Ash Wednesday psalm, Psalm 51. We don’t know if this is so, but tradition tells us that David wrote this after his adultery with Bathsheba and his engineering of the death of her husband, Uriah. It doesn’t really matter if that’s so or not; whoever wrote Psalm 51 had a very keen sense of what it means to sin greatly against God.

I imagine there was a great deal of disorder in their life; the knowledge of their shame and guilt, the dread of God’s judgement, and an absolute inability to put things right.

I suppose we all know something about that.

We gather tonight to acknowledge several things.

  • We are mortal, and our lives are like the grass of the field in relation to the earth, the universe, to God;
  • we are finite, and we cannot grasp much beyond our own experience of life in the time and place we are in;
  • like sheep we have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way (Isaiah 53.6).

We may not have done anything like David did, but we know about sin and brokenness.

And it gets worse when we look at what is done in our name as members of a democratic society. So much cries out for justice and for reparation.

  • Children are spending their formative years in detention centres; in the years to come, there are likely be Royal Commissions which will cause us to hang our heads;
  • the gap between first and second peoples in our country is not being closed;
  • sixty women a year are murdered in Australia by their partners, more than one a week;
  • we are in danger of bequeathing an unliveable environment to our great-grandchildren.

It’s a mess.

And what are we doing tonight? We have a bowl of ashes to remind us of our mortality, our finitude, our sin. What use are they?

Yet: we have them with the Scriptures through which God calls, through which God wails for justice. We dare not close our ears to God’s cry.

And we have the cross, that strange sign of Christ’s victory—through what means?—through death!—through the very worst that can happen. The cross is the sign that proclaims God can take the very worst situation and turn it to good.

And those ashes will be placed on our forehead in the shape of that cross. Think of that. We could just put a blob of ash on our foreheads in any old shape, but we place it in the form of a cross.

The ashes on our foreheads will be in the shape of the cross through which the living God conquers evil and sin and even death.

The ashes on our foreheads will be in the shape of the cross that Jesus commands his disciples to carry on the way to life. Think of that.

We are dust, we will return to dust, but we bear the sign of victory. Thanks be to God.


Our liturgy  then goes to name the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded in Libya by Islamists. Their crime was to be ‘People of the Cross’. As we say their names, we give thanks for their witness; we pray for their families; we pray for Muslim people of faith; we pray that peace will come.

Milad Makeen Zaky

Abanub Ayad Atiya

Maged Solaiman Shehata

Yusuf Shukry Yunan

Kirollos Shokry Fawzy

Bishoy Astafanus Kamel

Somaily Astafanus Kamel

Malak Ibrahim Sinweet

Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros

Girgis Milad Sinweet

Mina Fayez Aziz

Hany Abdelmesih Salib

Bishoy Adel Khalaf

Samuel Alham Wilson

A worker from Awr village, whose name is known to God

Ezat Bishri Naseef

Loqa Nagaty

Gaber Munir Adly

Esam Badir Samir

Malak Farag Abram

Sameh Salah Faruq

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

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Walking contradictions (Ash Wednesday, Year A, 5 March 2014)

Matthew 6.1-21

Here we are once more, it’s Ash Wednesday and Lent begins again. I think it’s the eighth time we’ve had an Ash Wednesday service. Yet it still strikes me that the way we enter Lent is odd when you look at the Gospel Reading set for this day. Jesus says:

Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.… whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Yet here we are, not one of us in our room with the door shut. We are gathered together. We see who’s here. And who is not.

And Jesus says,

whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret…

We’re not exactly going to disfigure our faces, but—a smudge of ash is never going to be a fashion statement, is it?

We are walking contradictions. We gather when we should stay in our room. We put ash on our face when we should look squeaky clean. The charge of hypocrisy always dogs our steps. How do we escape?

Our first instinct is to escape the charge of hypocrisy by trying harder. We want to be right, so we walk the walk and talk the talk. Too often we do it too loudly. We become like the person without love that St Paul talks about:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Our own efforts lead us to a dead end.

If we fast, even if it’s just giving up choccies, it’s hard not to look at ourselves. Will I lose a kilo or two over Lent? Will I avoid having to buy a bigger size? Will my doctor be pleased with my blood sugar next time?

I suspect we can’t really avoid some of these thoughts. But we put them to one side, to fast with Christ. We are called to fast to deny ourselves, and put our attention on him and his needy people.

We’re also called to pray. When we pray, it’s hard to let go of distracting thoughts. So we put them aside, perhaps by imagining them floating down a stream. And it’s hard for some of us to avoid checking how well we’re going. I’m praying much better now! I think. Am I really?

We’re called to give. Not so we can be proud. But because we have so much more than so many do, and we can share.

The journey of Lent teaches us that Jesus Christ has walked the way before us; that he accompanies us on the way; that we go in the right direction as our eyes are fixed on the goal rather than on ourselves.

The story of humanity is that we have each fallen short. Each one, except Jesus Christ. So let’s keep our focus on Jesus.

The next step we take will be to pray a version of the Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem, a Syrian saint who lived in the 300s. Remember—as we do, we focus on Jesus Christ.

Lord of our life,
take from us the spirit of laziness, discouragement,
lust for power and idle talk.
Instead grant to us, your servants,
the spirit of purity, humility, patience and love.
Merciful God,
grant us the grace to be aware of our own sins
and refrain from judging others;
for you are blessed forever. Amen.


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The kindness of God—Ash Wednesday, Year C (13 February 2013)

A very short meditation.


Let me start with a verse we don’t read on Ash Wednesday, Romans 2.4:

Do you not realise that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

This is a very helpful verse, one to remember always. It tells us of a goal—repentance—and the way to get there—accepting God’s kindness. ‘God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.’

The journey through Lent has a goal—a goal of repentance, of changing our minds so that we have the mind of Christ.

But: we don’t repent so that we ‘get’ the mind of Christ. Through the Spirit within us, God gives us the desire to receive the mind of Christ. So we repent because we realise just how kind almighty God is to us.

Let me put it this way: there are three easy words to remember when we pray: thanks, please, sorry. I used to think that there was an order I was meant to say them in:

  1. Sorry—I repent, so God will listen to me
  2. Please—I ask for forgiveness
  3. Thanks—for this new life

But I now think there’s no particular order, it depends on human need. But if any order does make sense, it may be this:

  1. Thanks—for giving us your Son
  2. Sorry—I messed things up
  3. Please—help me to live a life of thankful obedience

In giving us Jesus Christ, God has given us life in all its fullness. In giving us Jesus Christ, God has given us a sure Guide for life and a Saviour from death. So come, let’s repent of our waywardness, let’s return to him. Let us join together in this journey of the heart we call Lent, so we may truly rejoice at Easter.


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A short meditation for Ash Wednesday (Year A, 9 March 2011)


Isaiah 58.1-12
Matthew 6.1-21


For the longest time, we Protestants and Evangelicals have placed great stress on what happens in our hearts.

What good is it, we say, if a person does the outwardly correct ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ things, if their heart is not right with God?

We’ve seen too much self-serving religion. We’ve listened to the prophets like Isaiah, as we should. The people say to God:

Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?

And God replies:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

We are here today to connect. We wish to connect faith and life, so that our life as a family of God shows the justice and care of God.

We wish to connect soul and body. We can only love others through our bodies; we can only love them through their bodies. We can only say ‘Let me help’ with our body to another body. We can only say a caring word or smile a loving smile with our bodies. We are called to feed and clothe others whose bodies lack such things. Our soul needs our body to be a soul.

We are here to connect who we are in baptism with who we are in our body. We will soon hear the words ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. This body is not permanent. But in our baptism we were declared a daughter of God, a son of God—and the sign of the cross was made on our foreheads. Today, we will again receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads, but this time in ashes rather than water. ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’—yet always as God’s beloved children.

Lent is a time to connect. To connect with God and with one another, through very basic means—prayer; scripture; worship; service; fasting.

Let’s connect this Lent.


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Another Ash Wednesday liturgical introduction

Now, the attention turns to Lent…

I’ve found another Ash Wednesday liturgy here; I’m just using the liturgical introduction (i.e., Opening Meditation and Introduction), with some adaptation—we don’t use purple candles for Lent, we just hide the candles we use at other times; and I’ve added a sharper (more orthodox) christological focus.

But it’s good stuff, and well worth a look!

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Ash Wednesday liturgical introduction

Like a number of other churches, our Ash Wednesday service begins with opening words introducing the day. And they could be interpreted to add up to ‘this is what the Church of Jesus Christ has always done’ (even though we Reformed types haven’t!!).

I’ve been thinking about putting some more scriptural words in there, but over at Episcopal Cafe Christopher Webber has a helpful article with some words that I’ll be using. (Why reinvent the wheel?)

God and have a look if you’re looking for a more scripturally-based introduction.

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Friday fragments—15.01.10

I’ve decided to list stories I’ve found interesting during the week. Here are this week’s:

Lent is coming soon. If you’re looking for ideas for an Ash Wednesday service, you could look here.

Doug Chaplin has begun a new blog on worship called Jubilate. His other blog, Clayboy, is always worth a look.

The earthquake in Haiti has been on our minds. Scott Gunn traces the long-term moral disaster that is the dealings of the west with Haiti. Craig Guffman asks ‘Where was God in the earthquake?’; I found his words helpful in leading the funeral of a child earlier today.

Christians in Muslim countries use the word ‘Allah’ as the normal word for God. They are under pressure from some quarters in Malaysia to stop doing this.

Newsweek has an interesting article on the conservative case for gay marriage.

Finally, the wonderful Dave Walker looks at what may be seen from a church tower.

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Humility—a meditation for Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday eleven years ago, I was in East Timor (Timor-Leste) during the Indonesian occupation of that island. Early that morning, I walked the short distance from the Hotel Tourismo to the garden of Bishop Belo’s home for the Ash Wednesday service. The next year, 1999, the bishop’s house and garden were destroyed after Timor-Leste voted for independence. But that day, several hundred people were peacefully gathered.

I stuck out like a sore thumb. For a start, I only saw one other westerner there. But at around 1.91 m (over 6’3″), I also stood head and shoulders above just about everyone else there. I was obvious, and I don’t like being obvious.

When it came time to be marked with the Ashes, I stood in a line to to receive the Ashes from The Shortest Nun in the World. I had to bend very low before she could reach my forehead.

I was grateful that that was how it was. Because for me it was a sign of the one thing that is really needed as we receive the sign of Ashes: that one thing is humility, particularly among such a brave, proud-yet-humble people.

Jesus warns us against making a show of our faith. He warns us against the prideful attitude that says, ‘Look at me!’. When we walk away from here with the cross-shaped Ashes on our foreheads, we need to guard ourselves against wanting others to see how holy we are. We need the Spirit to give us humility.

You may not be worried about being proud. You may think you’re going to look faintly ridiculous. Good! Be ridiculous for Christ. Be a fool in his name. Remember the words of Scripture:

…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

We’re not too good at humility in places like Australia. Perhaps the current economic difficulties we face might give us some help. But in Lent we require humility rather than self concern. We lack the humility of Jesus, born in a shed, tempted in the wilderness, doing the Father’s will, dying on Golgotha. We can learn from the humility of the people of Timor-Leste. We need to let go of self-concern—for Christ’s sake.

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Early 2009 Ash Wednesday cartoon

Jon Birch published this Ash Wednesday cartoon. It’s not late for 2008—just early for 2009. There are lots more cartoons at his site!



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Ash Wednesday cartoon

A bit late here in Oz, but it must still be Ash Wednesday somewhere… This is Dave Walker’s 2006 cartoon.  




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