Ash Wednesday

More On the Beauty of Nothing

 

As we all know, ashes are the end result of the process of burning. When all the energy has been released from something by burning it, all that remains are ashes, ready to be thrown out. Ashes are like dust, lifeless, inert, and of no value. Yet ashes remind us of the dust which God embraced and used in Creation. Taking up the dust of the ground and fashioning it into human form, God breathed the Holy Spirit into it, making us into God’s own image and likeness. In other words, God took nothing and made something out of it. The starting point for God’s handiwork was, and always is, nothing. Only God makes something out of nothing. Which is why the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, is about nothing. For without God, every thing is as nothing.

Especially because of our focus on ashes in the liturgy of the day, as well as upon our sin and unworthiness, Ash Wednesday can feel gloomy. And our worship can seem a sad but necessary duty before we can move on to happier observances. But actually, Ash Wednesday ought to be the happiest day of the year if only we would approach it rightly. If only we could admit the nothingness of so much of our lives! We would then have all the more to turn over to God. For God is a master at taking nothing and making something out of it. And, by receiving a cross-shaped smudge of ashes, we are reminded that God finds and embraces our nothingness.

What do I mean by this? Well, consider all the things that get us down when we think of them… things like the bad choices we have made; relationships we have made difficult; tasks at which we have failed; and responsibilities we have shirked. These are all things that can just seem like nothing. Yet, they are the very things we can lift up and turn over to God, — especially because we can’t make anything of them.

All these “nothings” are like ashes or dust. Dust and ashes are the building blocks of God’s Creation. And so, they are also the building blocks of God’s Redemptive work. The next time we are tempted to say about something we have done, or are doing, “O, it’s really nothing,” let’s remember what God can do with ‘nothing.’ The journey we begin on Ash Wednesday is a ‘reverse-logic’ journey. In the church’s calendar, we go from our starting point with ashes, toward the endpoint of pentecostal fire. When we turn it over to God, the Holy Spirit takes the ashen nothingness of our lives and transforms it into the light of the world. Think about how much nothingness we can give to God, to create and work with!

 

The painting above is James Tissot’s, God Creating the World. This post is based on my homily for Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of ‘Nothing’

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A week ago, using the metaphor of the twin towers of a suspension bridge, I invited my congregation to explore a pairing of two Sundays in the calendar ~ Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday. The beginning of Lent presents us with a similar opportunity ~ to explore the relationship between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. With this comparison, instead of noticing a parallel, we can observe an obvious paradox.

For, on Easter Sunday, we face an unusual challenge ~ we must take the finding of an absence, and discern within it a presence. Something that was known, seen and touched, became as if it was nothing. And so, we are challenged to see how an empty tomb could at the same time be full of meaning. Even though Mary Magdalene and the disciples found nothing in the tomb, they came away with the conviction that something profound was there.

Consider, then, this remarkable contrast. In the metaphors at the heart of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we observe inverse phenomena. What would Ash Wednesday be without ashes? A biblical image with a vivid history, and the tactile liturgical use of a common material, characterize our services on the first day of Lent. And yet, the presence of ashes is meant to represent an absence. A dish full of ashes in my hand represents something larger, which is empty. Something is marked on my parishioners’ foreheads, and it symbolizes the starkness of nothing, or, literally, no thing.

So, the Sunday of resurrection presence provides the reverse of the Wednesday of regrettable absence. Though it wouldn’t sound as good, Ash Wednesday could instead be called, “Absence Wednesday,” “Empty Wednesday,” or “Nothing Wednesday.” This is because the ashes at the heart of the liturgy for this day symbolize an absence, an emptiness, or a ‘nothing.’ I don’t mean that the ashes are empty of meaning. It’s just that what they represent is literally nothing. Ashes represent nothing of value, nothing of worth. And that is what makes them special! We put ashes on our foreheads to remind us that, on our own and relying on ourselves, we are nothing of value, nothing of worth. No matter how hard we try, we don’t give meaning and value to ourselves. Only God does that.

Our lives can sometimes feel like they are full of “nothings,” as if all that we do only amounts to ashes or dust. All too quickly, we forget that dust and ashes are the building blocks of God’s Creation. They are the building blocks of God’s Kingdom. When we are tempted to think about something we have done, and say, “O, it’s really nothing at all,” let’s remember what God can do with ‘nothing’.

 

This posting is drawn from my homily for Ash Wednesday, the text for which can be found by clicking here. The link will take you to the sermons page on our parish website, where you will find a link to the Ash Wednesday sermon as well as others.