Wednesday March 6, 2019
12:10 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Turner
The fire of God’s love
One of the remarkable things about Ash Wednesday in New York is the fervor with which people seek out the imposition of ashes. Early this morning I spent some time in the Narthex and then in the Nave watching people take the long walk up the aisle for that brief encounter with the ash and the words “Thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” And most smiled as I looked at them and some, rather incongruously, said “Thank you, Father.” And I smiled back for they were not afraid of what I had said - reminding them that they were, in fact, going to die. For a moment they digressed from their usual journey to work, the office or to school; perhaps they were on their way to the shops or to the doctor’s office; they came wearing every kind of clothing and uniform, all united in this little quest for the ashes before they began their day and continued their journey in this busiest of the world’s cities.
A couple of days ago a friend commented about the old tradition of inviting people to return last year’s palm crosses to be burned to make the ash for this day but he said something quite remarkable which I had never contemplated before. It went something like this: “To get the ash we need to burn the palms – we need fire; isn’t it poignant that Lent begins with fire and ends with fire – the fire to make the Ash and the fire of the Easter Vigil.”
Today’s imposition of ashes brought that home to me; fire destroys and consumes but it also brings light and warmth in the cold and the darkness. On Ash Wednesday, we remember our mortality and, on that long walk to receive the ash on their foreheads, all those people I saw earlier were attempting to get things in the right order. Lent is about putting God first, even for a moment, so that when Easter comes we have truly experienced the power of his redeeming love. Ash Wednesday is about taking stock - stopping and pondering our mortality, our sinfulness, and our need of God’s love and forgiveness.
And that love and forgiveness has come to us through Jesus Christ; no longer a distant God but a God who dwells among us and has experienced that long, lonely walk himself.
When the Word became flesh, God experienced in Jesus all that it is to be human including human frailty and mortality.
In his amazing book, ‘Love’s endeavor, love’s expense’, W.H. Vanstone explores most beautifully the risk that God took when the incarnation happened and how that risk meant that redemption was so complete in his son, Jesus Christ. He writes:
“The activity of God in creation must be precarious. It must proceed by no assured programme. Its progress, like every progress of love, must be an angular process – in which each step is a precarious step into the unknown; in which each triumph contains a new potential of tragedy, and each tragedy may be redeemed into a wider triumph; in which, for the making of that which is truly an ‘other’, control is jeopardized, lost, and, through activity yet more intense and vision yet more sublime, regained; in which the divine creativity ever extends and enlarges itself, and in which its endeavour is ever poised upon the brink of failure.” (pp 62-63).
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” At that moment of dereliction on the cross, it was as if Jesus experienced in his very self the words that will be said in a few moments to each one of us: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Because Jesus experienced death, our future as mortals was forever changed. When God raised Jesus from the dead, the fire that is so fearful (which destroys and consumes, and which leaves only lifeless ashes) was transformed into a fiery furnace where God’s redemptive love and forgiveness was smelted.
Words from the hymn ‘Morning glory, starlit sky’ written by Vanstone in which he explores the immensity of God’s love and how different it is from our own weak attempts at making amends:
“Drained is love in making full,
bound in setting others free,
poor in making many rich,
weak in giving power to be.
Therefore he who shows us God
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God's love must be.
Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.”
(Hymnal 1982 #585)