“Lent: Heavy and Light.” A Sermon for Ash Wednesday, 6th March 2019.

by Roberta Berke.  

“Is such the fast that I choose…to lie in sackcloth and ashes?”   [Isaiah 58.5]

Have you ever scattered the cremated ashes of someone you loved? Have you ever discarded the tiny remains of a person you loved? When you carry the urn holding their ashes to the chosen place, you realise that human ashes are surprisingly heavy. The pulverised bones of an average adult are as heavy as three full bags of sugar. Three kilos. Yet when you scatter these grey ashes, they are light. These ashes fly on the wind in random directions. These pale flakes cling to your hands. These gritty bits sting your eyes. A human body is committed to be burned or buried, with the words, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Tonight we are about to be marked with ashes that form the sign of the cross. We are reminded, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

After the furnace of the crematorium, only ashes are left of our bodies. Ashes are both heavy in weight yet are light enough to lift on the slightest breeze. Our human nature is both heavy and light. We are heavy: we are heavy with the weight of our bodies’ unavoidable decay and death. We are heavy: we are burdened down by the weight of our sins. We are oppressed by our bitter regrets. We are encumbered by our stubborn quarrels. And yet, and yet, our human nature is also light: our spirits are lifted by the God’s promise of eternal life. Our souls are light: our souls, our true selves, are not earth-bound: our souls are heaven bound. Our hearts are made light by the joy of God’s love. Our own burdens are lightened when we share God’s love with others and when we lift their burdens. Isaiah says that a fast which is pleasing to God is: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house….” [Isaiah 58: 6-7].

Our human nature is both heavy with the burden of our inescapable death and is light with the joy of God’s love. Therefore we should keep Lent in ways that are both heavy and light. Our Lenten fast is heavy and serious. The passing days of Lent lead us relentlessly to Christ’s gruesome death on Good Friday. We must confront Christ’s death. We must confront our own death. In our heads, we know that, sooner or later, everyone around us will die. Yet in our hearts, we don’t really believe that we ourselves are going to die. In the same way, we can clearly see the ash crosses on other people’s faces, but we can’t see the black marks on our own faces. We are quick to point out other people’s sins and their offences. Yet we are blind to our own sins, our hypocrisies and our petty selfishness. Lent is a time to look in the mirror at the ashes marking our own foreheads and to admit our own failings. Lent is a heavy burden: it’s hard to make time in our crowded days to grow closer to God. In Lent we shoulder the heavy task of trying to restrain our selfish impulses, our lazy self-indulgences.  But Lent is not only a time for us to look inward and to repent. Lent is also a time to take on the heavy lifting of other people’ burdens. Isaiah tells us our fasting will be acceptable to God, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” [Isaiah 58.9-10]

We shoulder the heavy burden of Lent in order to clear our lives of trivial and selfish preoccupations. We clear a space to be with God through prayer and study. In this open space we can begin to realise where we have gone wrong. We can resolve to take a different path. We can pay attention to other peoples’ needs.

As well as being heavy, our Lenten fasting is also light. Jesus invites us, “Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11.30] We don’t please God by making ourselves miserable. We can’t expect to manipulate God’s forgiveness by inflicting pain upon ourselves. Nor should we try to gain approval by showing off our ostentatious Lenten observances. Jesus tells us, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” [Matthew 6.5] “Hypocrites” are literally “play actors”, those who assume a false identity to impress spectators. Soon friends will ask, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Our only response should be, “I’m giving up boasting about what I’m giving up for Lent.” That’s all: say no more. There’s no need to moan about how much we miss that nice glass of wine at six o’clock. No exaggerated agonising about how hard we struggle not to open that tempting box of chocolates. Jesus tells us that no one should be able to guess that we are fasting. Jesus said, “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces to show others that they are fasting…But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” [Matthew 6.16-17]

“Wash your face.”  That brings us down to earth: when do we wash off these holy ashes? Do we go out into the street with black smudges on our foreheads to show everyone how pious we are? Or do we quietly wipe off the ashes, but keep them in our hearts as a seal of Christ’s cross? Christ’s cross will lead us to the light of Easter dawn and to the joy of the resurrection. Christ’s heavy sacrifice lightens and unties our heavy yoke of death. AMEN.