Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent. For forty days we shall travel along a path of discovery. A path that should deepen and reawaken our faith.
We begin Lent with a communal act of penance. We gather together as Christian communities and are individually signed with the sign of the cross on our foreheads as the priest calls us to repentance. This is a humbling moment when we see the equality of Christ's Kingdom. All of us failed in living up to the demands of the Gospel.
The act of receiving ashes is so steeped in meaning that we could talk non-stop for forty days and still not exhaust everything there is to say. Space here is limited so I will give but a few pointers to is significance.
On the Sunday before Easter we celebrate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. As he enters the city the crowd gathers around him. They wave branches and shout hosannas to the Son of David. Here is a crowd full of joy, hope and anticipation. They see in Jesus a new King David chosen by God.
But crowds are notoriously fickle. A few days later Jesus would stand before the judgement seat of Pilate. Pilate would try to release Jesus but the crowd would have none of it. That same crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem shout that they have no king but Caesar. In the darkness they cry, 'Crucify him'.
This change in fortunes tells us more about us than it does of Jesus. Jesus remains constant, his message remains the same no matter what reaction that message receives. But how can those around him change their minds so dramatically in a few short days?
An historian might look at the last days of Jesus and ponder what might have been. And looking through history might equate him with other good men who didn't quite achieve what they stove for; like Ghandi or Dr. Martin Luther King.
But the death of Jesus was only a failure in worldly terms. The honours and glories bestowed on us by the world or by crowds can easily and quickly evaporate; they seldom endure. We need only look at the world around us to know this is true. How many wars and conflicts are there in the world today as individuals and crowds fight for worldly power?
This struggle was made manifest to the whole world on 11 September last year but was felt, perhaps, most by the rich powerful nations of the world. For in these nations much was taken for granted, most of all a feeling of security.
Few thought that ordinary lives or ordinary human beings could be wiped out in the heart of the most powerful nation on earth. But at that moment these counties experienced what many poorer and less powerful nations have lived through for years; the constant threat of terror.
On Ash Wednesday the ash that is put on our foreheads is ash from burnt palms. The very palms we used last year to call to mind the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It stands as a warning; as Scripture says,
put no trust in princes, in mortal man in whom there is no help. Take their breathe they return to clay, their plans that day come to nothing.
If we strive only for worldly gain then we will never be satisfied.
During Lent we must search our lives to discover what is of the world and what is of God. The very action of putting on those ashes gives us a stark reminder. At our baptism the first thing that happens is we are called by our name and the minister claims us for Christ as he traces the cross on our forehead. From that moment we belong to Christ.
As we gather on this day let these ashes remind us of the passing nature of this world. Let them remind us that without God we can achieve nothing that is worth achieving. Let us see that sin disfigures the image of God that we bear. Let us remember the promises we made to God at our baptism to reject evil and hold fast to the faith.
Let us solemnly undertake during Lent to prepare ourselves to renew those promises at Easter and to make amends for failing to have lived up to them over the past year.