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
Gaber Munir Adly
Esam Badir Samir
Malak Farag Abram
Sameh Salah Faruq
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.