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An homily for Ash Wednesday

An Homily for Ash Wednesday

“ Let us remember the  dreadful judgement hanging over our heads and always ready to fall upon us. Let us return to our Lord God with all contrition and meekness of heart, bewailing and lamenting our sinful life. Its is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. He shall pour down rain upon the sinners, snares, fire and brimstone, storm and tempest – this should be their portion to drink”

From The 1662 BCP Service of Commination.

Most likely you are not too familiar with these words. But a congregation worshipping here in past centuries on Ash Wednesday would have been.

We can only imagine how parishioners, young and old, rich and poor, hearty or infirm, received these dire warnings of the consequence of sin.  The threat of God’s wrath upon – to quote from another prayer in the commination, “ thy servants who are vile earth and miserable sinners”  – must have engendered fear in the hearts of those with little theological sophistication. The fear of not being right with God before death and judgement must have stalked many an earlier generation  of Christians.

“ Repent!” is the great cry of the commination, “ Repent before it is too late- and God will forgive all sin”.

Well, Lent – (which incidentally comes from an old english word meaning lengten – meaning the lengthening of the days)  has traditionally been understood as a time for reflection upon personal sin coupled with a renewed desire for repentance and forgiveness.  The Rite of The Imposition of Ashes on AW   is a very ancient one – going back some 900 years when ashes were first applied to people’s foreheads with the words “ Remember, O man, that thou are dust and unto dust though shalt return”

In truth, when the 1552 Prayer Book came out there was no mention of ashing – just this commination – likewise with the 1662 version. No mention of ashing directed there.  But the tradition of ashing has enjoyed something of a resurrection in the Church of England since the end of the 19th century and many churches now include this ritual as part of their AW service.

Why do it now? Isn’t it a rather ancient, strange and messy tradition we could do without?

Here are four suggestions as to how it can be meaningful for us tonight.


I think these ashes are a reminder to us of who we are. The Bible tells us in Genesis, in very beautiful and poetic language, that we came from dust and to dust we shall return. We have a picture of the first human being, Adam, being formed out of the dust of the earth by God – and then God breathing life into that dust. That is a powerful image.

We don’t necessarily to believe that human beings were created literally in that way – but we need to go deeper into the spiritual idea the story conveys. That  our very existence belongs to God. The  very life inside us is given by God. He sustains and nurtures us. He gives us life and our lives rest in him.  And when we die – that our spirit lives on in his power even though our frail  bodies return to the dust.  Ashing can remind us that it is the spirit Of God, moving in us, that makes us alive. Without God, we would indeed just be ash.  It can be a powerful reminder of  absolute  centrality of God in our lives.


The  ashes can also be a sign of repentance – one of the oldest Lenten themes. Originally , people who had committed grave sin in the eyes of the church were excommunicated – that is, they were not allowed to receive HC. They would undergo a time of penance during Lent – and wear simple clothes and put ash on their heads. Hence the saying – sackcloth and ashes. Provided they showed they were truly repentant of what ever they had done, they would be readmitted to HC on Easter Day.  So, this theme of being sorry, of reflecting on our past mistakes and seeking to lead better lives, can still be a healthy and useful theme for our  Lenten Christian lives.

These ashes tonight which we receive on our foreheads can remind us that there may be things in our lives we need to change. Repentance comes from a Greek word meaning to turn around.  And we may like to reflect on how we are, how we treat other people, how we view ourselves, how we treat the world, and make a real effort to turn around from attitudes and actions that are not wholesome and  in accordance with God’s will.


A reminder of our baptism. When we were baptized, we will have received on our foreheads the sign of the cross, the sign of Jesus Christ. Some priests use oil when they anoint a baby or grown-up.  The making of the sign of the cross reminds us that we are sealed for Christ.  This goes back to imagery in the Book of Revelation – where an angel marks the faithful with the sign of the cross – as if to protect them with the sign of Christ as they face trials and tribulations. Having the cross on our foreheads reminds us that we have belonged to Christ since our baptism. We are assured of  his love, his guidance, his protection as we journey through life.


Lastly, it is very significant that we use palm crosses to make these ashes. The palms are a signal of victory. By making the ashes with the palms of Palm Sunday we are reminded of how all our victories are but ashes before the glory of God. We are reminded of the events of Holy Week – and of how the victory of Jesus over sin  and darkness was won for us on Good Friday.

These may not be a lot of ashes, and certainly not a lot appear on our foreheads. But we can see them as a powerful symbol of our need for God – that part from Him, we are indeed dust and ashes. With him – we can grow into the image of Christ.

As we come to receive these ashes on our foreheads, may we all pray that we grow this Lent closer to God,, that we sense an even deeper need for Him in our lives, and receive  the peace that  forgiveness brings if there are things that trouble us.


” Father God, we know what it is like to be gripped with fear, perhaps not just for a moment of time, but for weeks on end.

Thankyou that not a sparrow falls to the ground without you knwoing it.

Thank you for the comfort of your presence.

Help us to be assured of your presence with us  always, no matter what we fear.


February 17, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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