“See, now is the time”
February 10, Ash Wednesday:
Psalm 103 or 103:8-14;
Joel 2:1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Draft text of the homily, please forgive all grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
The day of salvation? Now?
But it’s just Wednesday.
True, it is Ash Wednesday, but still…
Tomorrow will be another day…and another…and another…
Today is the day of salvation?
That’s hard to accept, isn’t it?
Hard to get our heads and our hearts around.
There are those rare days when it does feel like the whole world shudders and…alters…in some fundamental way.
The day a parent dies…
The day your child is born…
The day you receive that piece of news you either have or haven’t been anticipating…
Those are days when the veil seems to drop and we can really affirm that, “yes, today is the day when it all changes.”
But those days are rare, in our individual lives, and in our communal lives.
So rare that mark them…fix them…on the calendar. July 4th, September 11th, December 25th. On those days, maybe…maybe…we can sense the now-ness of the moment. Now is the acceptable time…now is the day of…
But Easter, the feast of the Resurrection, no doubt the most important and utterly world-shaking, cosmos-altering “now” event of all time is a moveable feast.
Not a fixed day on the calendar…isn’t that interesting? [At least not yet]
Every Easter Vigil, with the light of Holy Saturday fading, we light a fire and huddle around it like the wandering tribe we really are. Then, following the light of the Paschal Candle we enter the darkness of the Sanctuary, this holy room—tomb—womb—from which the new light of Easter springs forth and we hear Tom Bridge chant the Exsultet—this ancient chant praising God for the light of the Paschal Candle and proclaiming the story of our salvation in an emphatic present tense.
“This is the night”…now!
“When you brought our fathers, the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and led the through the Red Sea on dry land.”
“This is the night”…now!
“When all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.”
“This is the night”…now!
“When Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the Grave.”
“This is the night”…now!
“How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away.”
“How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and we are reconciled to God.”
This night. Now. Not a night on this particular day a long, long time ago.
This night. Today. Right now. In the darkness of the sanctuary, in the darkness of the world. This is when it happens.
“See, now is the acceptable time. See, now is the day of salvation.”
When we gather for the Easter Vigil we proclaim that “this is the night.”
And in the eternal sense of time that is God’s time, every Holy Saturday is THE night…regardless of when it falls on the calendar. And because every Holy Saturday is THE night…so is every Sunday in the year…and because every Sunday in the year is also “THE night,” every night in the year is “the night.”
And so we walk into a darkened sanctuary this evening, in the midst of a darkened world and hear… “See, now is the appointed time. See, now is the day of salvation.”
Now. Today. Everyday.
Can you believe that?
We’re so locked into the linear progression of time, that it’s really hard to hear. Today is the day. Today and everyday is Easter.
Today and everyday is the day when, again in the words of the Exsultet, innocence is restored to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn, when hatred and pride are cast out, and peace and concord reigns.
But wait…has the rector lost his mind. Why is he preaching an Easter sermon on Ash Wednesday?
I thought Ash Wednesday was day to consider our mortality, and confront our sins and our shortcomings, a day to begin our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and self-denial.
Well that’s true. It is Ash Wednesday. But Ash Wednesday is tied to Easter. And Ash Wednesday is also a moveable feast.
Paul proclaims that today is the day of salvation, and that’s true.
What Paul says is echoed by the great mid-twentieth century philosopher Albert Camus who, in his novel “The Fall,” says:
“I will tell you a secret, my friend. Do not wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.”
If Easter takes place every day, then so does Ash Wednesday, and so does Good Friday.
One of the most powerful moments for me each year is looking into the eyes of people I know, people I don’t know, people I love, and placing ashes on their heads and saying, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It is a profound and intimate moment, this annual confrontation with our mortality, this brush with our own personal last day, our own individual day of judgement.
It’s also the liturgical moment when our mortality meets and mingles with our baptism.
The ashen cross—the stark and dusty symbol of our mortality—is drawn over the exact spot where the chrism—the fragrant and luxurious seal of the resurrection—is placed when we are baptized.
Ashes and oil combine.
Our beginnings and our endings meet and embrace one another.
And God’s grace and mercy has the final word.
God is present in all of it, and through all of it.
Today is the day of judgement. Today is the day of resurrection.
That is what we’re being invited to see and hear and experience tonight.
But it’s hard, isn’t it? Because we are linear, fixed calendar people.
And on one level today is just Wednesday, and tomorrow there will still be bills to pay, and children to get ready for school, and aging parents to take care of, and the sound and fury of the world will creep on in it’s petty pace, day after day, year after year…the darkness remains, and so does the light.
And God is in all of it…look at the list that Paul lays down as examples of the ways we commend ourselves to God…the ways we meet and magnify God in our lives, through “great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, sleepless nights, hunger,” yes; but also “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech”…God is in all of it.
It reminds me of something he says in his letter to the Romans. A passage that is often used at funerals… “For I am convinced that 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).
God is in all of it. Today is the day of judgment. Today is the day of salvation. And the logic of the liturgy bears this out.
After a period of silence, I’m going to invite you to the observance of a holy Lent. And I hope that whatever your Lenten practices are, that they help you see and experience the reality of God’s presence in your life every day.
And after that invitation we will offer you ashes for your foreheads as a sign of your mortality. Then we’ll say together the Litany of Penance, in a sense participating in that last judgement that takes place everyday eternally. And then we will together celebrate the Eucharist, and proclaim the reality of the resurrected Christ in our midst—the reality that nothing is beyond the reach of God, the reality that nothing separates us from Love of God, the reality that this is the day. This is the night. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.