A sermon for Ash Wednesday

The first time I distributed ashes on Ash Wednesday, one of the first people in my line was someone who had lost a child. A teenager who died in a sudden, tragic accident. And I put my hands on her, I marked the cross, I said the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—it’s a reminder of our mortality—and I was so humbled. I was almost shocked to be standing there in front of this person who had come face to face with death in a way that I hadn’t, and I thought, who am I to be reminding this person of our mortality.

And I’ve had that experience quite a few times since then, the experience of marking a cross in ash on someone who was facing death in one way or another—and of course we all are, that’s the truth we live with.

And I’ve been thinking of some of those people this week. I thought of one woman who was an Elvis Presley fan, and for her 75th person she hired an Elvis impersonator and she gave a party for the whole parish in the parish hall, with lots of food, dancing, she wore blue suede shoes and danced the night away. She had been dealing with cancer for quite a long time, and she died about a year and a half after that.

And I thought of another person who also was living with a diagnosis like that, and she was a much quieter person, but someone who really opened her heart to welcome everyone in the parish into the journey that she was on, to walk with her the way she was walking. Now I know it might not seem obvious but that was a tremendous gift to everyone in the parish. In a paradoxical way, it was life-giving.

And I think that both of these women demonstrated an awareness of mortality, yes; an awareness that that’s the way we’re all going. But the reason we remember that tonight because time is short and what matters is how we live in the meantime. They were not people who did anything really dramatic that you would go out and tell about, but they were both people who were full of love, they were made for love. We were made to love as well as we can and as much as we can in the time that we have here on earth.

And that’s really what Lent is all about. It’s a time to step back, to—as the first reading said—to return to God with all your heart. To step back and think about how it is that we’re living, because living is what really matters. What we make of the life we’re given.

Because none of us is perfect. And we all falter, and in some ways I think it’s a relief in Lent to let down some of the pretenses that we carry, and accept our imperfections, but realize in the time that we have we can do better. We can make more out of this gift of life that we’ve been given.

So the three traditional spiritual practices that help with this in Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We’ve got prayer and almsgiving covered in the back of the church. You can pick up a mite box, or a collection of Lenten reflections. Fasting, for a lot of us, might have been emphasized more than either of those when we were growing up, as if it were the only thing we really did in Lent. The fasting usually took the form of giving something up. And maybe some of you will give something up this Lent. But remember that the purpose of this kind of fast isn’t just to cause yourself discomfort. We give up some of the things we think we want, at least for a while, as a reminder to us that what we really want and need is God.

When I think of Lent, though, I think of my own childhood. I was raised Catholic and I went to parochial school. And when Lent came around, my father went to daily Mass. I was the oldest kid, and he took me with him. I’m not sure if the others were just too young, or not really interested, but it was something my dad and I did together.

So I went to 8 o’clock Mass with him every day. And my parochial school was right next door to the church. And school actually started before the service was over, so I got to miss homeroom. And when I got to school, because I wouldn’t have eaten because I would have been fasting before communion, I got to go down to what passed for a cafeteria and eat powdered-sugar donuts and Frosted Flakes for breakfast. And I used to tell this story and laugh about it as an example of not really observing Lent, but the more I’ve thought about it over the years the more I’ve appreciated that time.

The prayer was very meaningful to me, every day in that church. I still remember the feeling of being there. And the time with my father was really good. And the breakfast was a reminder that life is good. Frosted Flakes are good. Even if maybe not so good for you.

So I would urge you, find some practice for Lent. It doesn’t have to be giving something up that is painful. But do something, make something of this holy season.


Preached at the Church of St. James the Greater, Bristol, PA.