Ashes—sermon for Ash Wednesday, 1 March 2017
Unfortunately, this sermon was not recorded.
March 1, Ash Wednesday:
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree,”wrote Thomas Merton.
Think about that. A tree gives glory to God in simply being what it is.
“The more the tree is like itself, the more it is like [God],” said Merton. And, “if it tried to be like something else which it never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore would give [God] less glory.”
A tree doesn’t need to do anything other than be what it was created to be. The same is true of every animal, every bird, every insect, every leaf and larvae, every cephalopod and crustacean, every amoeba and algae.
The diversity of life on this planet (and possibly on other planets) is not a sign of imperfection. But a sign of the divine perfection…unity in diversity…each created thing perfect in “its own individual identity with itself.”
“This particular tree,” writes Merton, “will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way that no other tree before or after it ever did or will do…”
Take a look around at all the stones, the wood, the glass, and as you walk outside today, notice all the life around you…”each particular being in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and its own inviolable identity, gives glory to God by being precisely what [God] wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by [God’s] Love and [God’s] infinite Art,” says Merton.
But what about us?
What about you and me?
That’s trickier…“Trees and animals have no problem,” Merton says, “God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.
“With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it.”
Or, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” (Mother Night)
Ash Wednesday is our annual reminder of this…one of our many wake up calls to become careful with, to become aware of, all the things that we pretend to be…
and to ask…is that really who and what God is calling me to be? Is that really who and what God is calling us to be? Is that who God needs us to be?
Or are we simply being obstacles for one another…(as St. Paul says), are we putting obstacles in our own way, obstacles of pride…giving alms so as to be praised, praying so as to be noticed and admired, fasting for show…
“serving our own interests on our fast day…fasting only to quarrel and fight”
Storing up treasures…actual treasures, and ego treasures…for ourselves…our false selves and not for God and the sake of God’s realm of shalom.
These are all examples of what Merton calls “the false self” in action…The false self is that illusory person who shadows all of us. The person I want myself to be…rather than being the person God knows me to be…
The false self, says Merton, “is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love”—it’s the one that say: ’I can do it on my own.’ ‘I got this.’ ‘I don’t need anything.’ ‘God has nothing to do with this…’
Our spiritual work…the work we do with God…is largely about shedding this false self, and revealing more and more the true self underneath.
Think about this as you come forward for the imposition of ashes, because there is a double sign at work here. The ashes are a reminder of one aspect of our true selves…we are mortal…we are part of the created order…we come from dust and to dust we return…our physical bodies are part of what is deeply true and sacred and holy about us…the ashes that we use are made from the palms that you waved in celebration last Palm Sunday…every ending is a new beginning…and nothing is lost in God’s economy.
The ashes are also a sign of our false selves…that so much of our egos…the false self we wear around as a show to others…is as shadowy…dusty…transitory as the ashes themselves…and just like the false self actually covers up something deeper, and much more luminous. For those of us who are baptized, the transitory cross of ashes is placed over the permanent cross of chrism that was made at baptism…the sign that marks us as Christ’s own forever. The ashes cover up that mark…the sign of our true selves…our true identity in Christ.
This Lent…as you receive your ashes, and as you wipe them off later…I pray you will spend time contemplating what has been covered up, and what is longing to be revealed…what of the shadowy ashes of your false self can you let go of? What of your true self will you have the courage to let God reveal? So that all of us can give glory to God by living and being as we were created by God to be.
All Merton quotes taken from “Things in Their Identity,” by Thomas Merton. In, New Seeds of Contemplation. 1961. New York: New Directions. pp. 29-36