Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
It’s been 73 years since Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is a lot more fun when it falls on Mardi Gras, which is always the day before Ash Wednesday. But today is Valentine’s Day, and Ash Wednesday. Chocolates and champagne, or ashes on your forehead? Do you want to hear “I love you,” or hear “you’re going to die.”? As my husband likes to say, when given a choice, take both. We might as well, for this is what God gives us this year, “I love you; you’re going to die.”
Most of us don’t like to be reminded that we are going to die. But I know that there are at least 84 people who do. That’s the number of people who have downloaded the app, “WeCroak.” (You just can’t make this stuff up, or at least I can’t.) At unpredictable times, just like death, you are sent notices that read, “Don’t forget. You’re going to die,” or “The grave has no sunny corners.” These are the less graphic of the notices. According to the app developers, the program is meant to encourage contemplation, and meditation. It is supposed to promote calm. (This explains why only 84 people downloaded it!) The concept for it was inspired by a folk saying that in order to be happy, one must contemplate death five times a day. What better way than to have your phone remind you?
The ashes imposed on our foreheads tonight will remind us that we are going to die. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It’s a reminder that God made us out of perishable stuff. One of the creation stories in the book of Genesis tells us, Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostril the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7). That God made us is what gives us holiness. It’s the perishable stuff, our bodies, that get us in to trouble. We are both saint and sinner, and while we have difficulty holding these two things together, God does not. Tonight, God says to us, “I love you.” Tonight, God reminds us, “You’re going to die.”
God shows God’s love for us in and through his son, Jesus, who lived among us proclaiming that love through teaching, and healing and forgiveness. We killed him for it. These forty days of Lent that begin tonight will lead us to Jesus’ death on a cross before we get to the glory of Christ’s resurrection. Tonight, we will be marked with the cross of Christ in the form of ashes. Just as we do not want to be reminded of our death, we do not want to face our sin. It’s hard and uncomfortable to examine all the ways we fall short. Tonight, we come head on with both.
I think it is the honesty of Ash Wednesday that makes it my favorite liturgical day. These forty days of Lent begin with our confessing to God, to each other, and to the whole company of heaven that we have sinned by our own most grievous fault. While God loves us with God’s whole heart, we confess that we have not loved God with ours. We have given our hearts to things that cannot love us back, like money, or social status, or pride. Our values and our measures of success are not quite in line with God’s.
Even when we do things that God would have us do, such as give money to the poor, or pray, or fast, Matthew reminds us that we have a propensity to do so for the wrong reasons. That’s why Matthew tells us not to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing. We look for praise and honor and love not from God, but from each other. We are like children yelling, “Watch me! Watch me!” Our desire to be noticed is the result of sin. Jesus tells his disciple, “Do not be like the hypocrites.” The word “hypocrites” literally means “performers.”
This evening, we, with Christ, begin our journey to the cross, before we continue on to the resurrection. Listen again to part of our Invitation to Lent: We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance and for God’s mercy. Do you hear the hope in our invitation? We begin. We start. Tonight is our chance to come clean, to die to our sin, and to begin again. By admitting our sins, we become open to God’s working in us. Being loved by God, and accepting God’s love, we are set free. We are free from having to win, and from having to prove ourselves lovable. We are free from needing the approval and admiration of others. And if we are free from, we are free to. We are free to focus on helping others. We are free to love those who are not like us. We are free to forgive. We are free to become who God created us to be. We are free to dance without fear that someone will see us.
Tonight, we will receive ashes in the form of a cross, while hearing the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The marking of the ashen cross is placed on top of the cross made on our foreheads at our baptism. Before we are reminded that we are going to die, we are marked with the cross of baptism, in which God claims us as his beloved. There is nothing that can change that, even our refusal to love God with our whole hearts. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). On this Valentine’s Ash Wednesday, God reminds us, I love you, and even your sin won’t change that. You’re going to die. But even death won’t tear you out of my arms.
~ Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin
 Bosker, Bianca. “The App That Reminds You You’re Going to Die.” Technology. January/February 2018. Accessed on the web.