We are here tonight to receive some ashes.
It doesn't take long in reading some scripture to come across a passage referring to "sackcloth and ashes". The idea of ashes being used in some form of sadness, penitence, or repentance is a common sight, especially during the times of the kings.
Who in the world thought this idea up? To have a service where people come forward and have their heads marked with some black ashes. It is an idea that still permeates much of our Christian thought and tradition.
During the time of early Church Father Tertullian, ashes and sackcloths were used as severe penance due to grave sin. Ashes, mixed with sackcloths represented a gruesome image of penance and humiliation; a form of penitence associated with those who violated Canon Law in the early church. Since this time, the public imposition of ashes sometime 40 days prior to Easter has been observed in the Roman Catholic Church later revised by the widespread granting of plenary indulgences.
- taken from the Wikipedia article on "Ash Wednesday"
Indulgences. There's an interesting word. I had to delve in Webster's and see what was going on there. Wikipedia also has a nice page explaining the word. I think we all have a grasp on how the word would normally be used. An indulgence would be something you splurge on. Something that you normally would not do for yourself. "I'm going to indulge myself with this chocolate cake this evening." Leaning over to a friend who is sharing some especially form of gossip, a person might say "indulge me" as they seek to get more information on the subject at hand. In the world of religion, though, the idea is different. As indulgence is thought of as a way to remove the harshness of church law in dealing with sin. Instead of being brought to shame for a past sin one has committed the seeker is told to do something less painful to make up for one's sin.
This service would be referred to as "The Imposition of Ashes". There's another interesting word. Imposition. If we impose on someone it means we are asking them to do something that were not planning on doing. We are intruding in their privacy. We are cutting into their family time. We are asking to fix something that is truly not their problem. Think of it in terms of this service and what we are about to do. Our forefathers would have been told to come forward and receive ashes on to their foreheads. This would not have been done in the evening where in about an hour, most of us would be going home and hopping into the shower or tub and those ashes would be washed off. No, the imposition would be used as an indulgence. A lesser form of punishment. An outward sign of our inward grovelling. "Here, take some ashes. Now, go walk around the rest of the day and let people see how sorry you are for your sins."
The church I grew you in didn't do the traditional take on Lent and Ash Wednesday. I do remember some Maunday Thursday services. We'll get to that in a few weeks, ourselves. Later, as a Nazarene, there was no mention of the Lenten season. No ashes. More of an emphasis towards Good Friday and Easter. The time of taking inventory on ones sin and remorsefulness was missing in those earlier circles in my life. I look back now and wonder why.
This is a time to remember. We have already approached the table and taken time to remember. Remembering what our Lord did in that time of with his disciples. How he took bread and broke it. Mentioning that the bread was his body, broken and abused. He would later lift a cup, proclaiming his blood to be the drink, poured out for the sins of many. See the indulgence of forgiveness being extended to the disciples and for all of mankind. In John's Gospel, it says that Jesus took a basin of water and towel and actually went around the room washing everyone's feet. See the imposition of uncomfortableness as the Master and Teacher take the lowliest servant's role of washing feet. A further sign of cleansing to remove sin. A sign they would not understand until later. An epiphany that would have its own time and place.
We approach tonight with many things on our minds and hearts. We know what kind of people we are. Whether we choose to admit it is another issue. We come to these ashes tonight to completely honest about our sin. It's bad and we need a remedy. This time of Lent is time to go without things and to focus on God. Instead spending the hour of television, indulging ourselves, we should spending that hour reading the Word or in prayer. Instead of indulging ourselves with that chocolate cake, we should take that couple of dollar and give the food to a homeless shelter or food pantry. Instead of spending time on that social media outlets, lets unplug from those and go out and get some real, wholesome, human contact.
We come here tonight to remember our sin. And, to say goodbye to it.
As we did on Sunday, I implore you to take a small card with a picture of your church on it.
On the back of it I invite you to write what your giving up for Lent. Write down what sin or addiction or area in life you want to give to God. Maybe, you don't need to write anything. The picture of your church on the front is what you're giving away. You want God to take this church into His hands and do as he pleases with it. Maybe there is some other issue or situation in life that God needs to take from you. Write it down and when you come forward to receive ashes, after your forehead has been marked, leave your piece of paper at the altar as a sign that God has that issue or situation or person now. It belongs to Him, not to you.
I hope its not to big an imposition. Indulge yourselves in the forgiveness and release God gives.