The Constructive Sadness of Ash Wednesday

Homily, The Constructive Sadness of Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In ancient times when people were sad they often put ashes on their heads. Tamar, the daughter of David put ashes on her head after she had been abused by her brother. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put ashes on his head when he learned that the king had decreed the execution of all Jews in the kingdom. Job sat in ashes when he lost all of his possessions and family. Ashes were a sign of sadness and mourning. They were a sign that not all was as it should be.

Today, on Ash Wednesday, we take up this ancient tradition. Today we recognize that not all is as it should be. Today we acknowledge the pain in this world from war and violence. We acknowledge humanity’s abuse and neglect of the earth. We acknowledge the poor who so often do not have enough to eat. And so many other things. All is not as it should be in this world. And it’s because of us, humanity, and our selfishness. Our sins. Our failures. 

And so today we put on ashes as a sign of sadness and mourning for the brokenness of this world. 

But the sadness of Ash Wednesday is not a form of Christian nihilism which sinks us all into meaninglessness without hope. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not a form of Christian pessimism which seeks to condemn us all. The ashes of Ash Wednesday should not lead us to mortal despair.

No, the sadness we carry on Ash Wednesday is constructive. It is hopeful. It is inspiring. It is, for us a call to action. Today, marks the beginning of our journey not only to the cross, but to the resurrection. And these 40 days of Lent are an inner preparation, so that our hearts may find the resolve to join Christ in the work of making the world anew. 

The ashes on our foreheads today are not without shape, but take on the sign of the cross and it’s redemptive power. And if we wear them without heeding the call to the work of love and justice—the work of making this world a better place—than we need not wear them at all, as our readings from Joel and Matthew suggest.

And so today we mourn that the world is not as it should be. But today we also resolve ourselves to do something about it. Amen.