Symbolism Helps On Christian Holidays
Series Theme: Reasons for Christian Holidays.
Title: What’s All This About Ashes and Flames?
Date delivered: February 10, 2016
Preacher: Rev. Douglas Donigian
Synopsis: On Ash Wednesday we use ashes to symbolize our mourning for Jesus’ manner of death. We use flames to symbolize God eliminating the spiritual consequences of our sins.
Summary: Jesus used the example of foot washing to show the difference between a whole body bath and removal of road dust. His death on our behalf is an over-all cleaning. Heartfelt confession is how we wipe off the sins we pick up on our roads in this life. Specific symbolic ways are offered for this confession on Ash Wednesday.
Meditation: Ash Wednesday is recognized as the beginning of Lent, the season that leads up to the Easter celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. During this season, we try to follow the steps that Jesus took, deliberately preparing to let himself be executed before his resurrection.
It is called Ash Wednesday because of the Old Testament practice of mourning by actually sitting in the ashes in the fire place and wiping ashes on one’s face and clothes.
I think cultures that allow emotion to be let out are better off than those who encourage emotion to be held in. Buried grief or guilt or anger weigh upon and twist us and destroy our joy of living. When my father died, I would have liked to sit in some ashes and moan. Rather I had to sit in the funeral home and politely greet people who came to pay their respects.
But why do we have this practice of ashes on this day? Why do some of us have ashes dabbed on our wrists or foreheads to symbolically act out mourning, thousands of years after Jesus died?
Certainly it is to remind us of Jesus’ suffering. His last days were filled with pain and humiliation. Suffering in the past is something for us to mourn out of compassion. Think of the people who died in the great plagues.
But there is another reason. We mourn because our sin is the reason Jesus suffered. We are responsible.
A section of John’s Gospel, 13: 1-10, helps me a lot in understanding what our Ash Wednesday service is all about.
“During his last meal with his disciples, Jesus began to wash their feet. Foot washing before a meal, when it was done at all, was the job of a lowly servant. It was a job for the person at the bottom of the house servant totem pole. So the disciples were uncomfortable with Jesus washing their feet and Peter flat refused to offer his feet to Jesus. At first.”
“But Jesus explained that he was giving them an example and if they weren’t willing to serve others like lowly servants, they had missed the whole point. They had missed how Jesus was different from all the people in the world who were trying to claw their way up the totem pole and forcing other people to serve them.”
“So Peter responded, “Well, if you put it that way, wash my hands and head too.” What he meant was he was in all the way; whatever Jesus wanted, he was going to do and then some. This attitude of complete faith and commitment was why Jesus had said that Peter would be the rock on which all future Christians would build their faith.”
“But, although Jesus loved Peter’s enthusiasm, he refused Peter’s offer in order to teach something else. Jesus explained that once you are clean, you don’t need to wash again all over; what you need is only to wash your feet because of the dust that they picked up in the street.”
This helps me with Ash Wednesday. Jesus died to pay the price for our sin and make it possible to be part of God’s family. This is our all-over cleaning. After this we need to wash off only the sins we have picked up during the day. This cleansing is a practical act that we can do together.
Our second reading from John’s first letter tells us that the practical way to wash away our daily sins is to confess them. 1 John 1:9 says, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” Confession will make us clean before God just as foot washing would make Jesus’ disciples clean for their Passover meal.
Confession has two parts, enumeration and repentance. By enumeration I mean remembering our sins, as specifically as possible. Repentance means being sorry for what we did and wanting to stop doing it and wanting to make up for the damage that we did.
This is the reason for our Ash Wednesday service. It gives us a chance to clean up for Lent. It allows us to confess whatever separates us from God. It lets us say we are sorry for doing the things that Jesus died to secure our forgiveness for.
Let’s do this together. Some of you may want to do this in prayer. Others may find some outward symbolism helpful. I do.
Some have had ashes imposed on forehead or wrists to show our sorrow, our mourning for our sins. Later we will offer to wash off these ashes with the water of Baptism to show how God’s forgiveness has cleansed us.
We also want to share in confession. If it helps you as it does me, please take a piece of paper and a pencil. As we enumerate some sins, please write them down on the paper. No one will see them. At the end of the service we will burn them to show that they can be reduced to ashes, no longer able to hurt us.
Jesus taught us not to harbor anger against our brother. If there is someone in your life who rubs you the wrong way, who is a thorn in your side, who disappoints your hopes, who misbehaves to their own detriment, who opposes you and makes it hard for you to avoid anger, write that person’s initial on the paper. Confess your need to forgive.
Paul taught that our bodies are temples and should be treated that way. They are the tools we use to do good, to help the needy, to show love. If you are not caring for your body in some way, make a broken line on the paper to be like a broken stick which cannot be used for its purpose. Confess you are not maintaining the gift you have been given.
Jesus has asked us to love him with our hearts, our feelings, and by obeying his teachings, our actions. If you do not feel as much love as you know you should, draw a broken heart on your paper. If you have not used your time and talent and treasure in proportion to your abilities, draw an empty square on your papers, a square that should be full. Confess.
Jesus asks us to encourage and build up others, especially other believers. If you know you could have done more, make a smudge on your papers, a place that is dark but should be light. Confess.
Finally, if there is something on your heart, some guilt, some emptiness or some discouragement, some unfulfilled dream, or some fear that is weighing on you, note it in some way on your paper.
Now fold up or crinkle up your paper.
We have enumerated some areas of sin. Shortly we will verbally state our sorrow and repentance for them. Then we will wash away the ashes and burn the papers, and we will be ready and able to fully love Jesus and celebrate what he has done for us.
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
Father, we ask you to accept our offers to forgive and our requests for forgiveness. We have symbolically burned a barrier between you and us. Please empower us to prepare for eternal life with you by doing your will. Amen.
First UCC, Quakertown