Dust, Ashes, and things that are actually ironic

Sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 13, 2013.

Whatever happened to irony?  Our culture’s understanding of irony has eroded over the past several years.  At one time, something was only described as ironic when it was actually ironic: when there was an obvious incongruity between the expected and actual results of a sequence of events.  These days, people tend to describe situations as ironic when things simply don’t go their way.  Nothing embodies this tendency quite as well as a song written by Canadian singer Alanis Morrisette.  In 1995, Morrisette released a song called “Ironic” in which she unsurprisingly describes a variety of situations as “ironic.”  alanisAnd while some are indeed examples of irony, the vast majority of the things she mentions could be more accurately described as unfortunate or disappointing.  The chorus is a good example: “It’s like rain on your wedding day, it’s a free ride when you’ve already paid; it’s the good advice that you just didn’t take, but who would have thought?  It figures.  And isn’t it ironic?”  Well…no.  None of these situations is particularly pleasant, but not one of them is ironic.  Irony implicitly implies tension and contradiction.  Irony challenges our expectations.  So it was ironic that Richard Nixon, the famed anti-Communist, was the U.S. President who opened relations with Communist China.  It is ironic that the money Texas will use to deal with the water shortage caused by a crippling lack of rainfall will come from the Rainy Day Fund.  And it is ironic that a Canadian singer wrote a song called “Ironic” that had very few examples of irony.  You might wonder why we should care about any of this.  Why should it matter that people misuse a word?  What difference does it make?  The reality is that irony is more than just a rhetorical device; it is something that grabs our attention and insists that we look at a situation more closely.  Irony unsettles us; it makes us uncomfortable and challenges our expectations.  At its best, irony encourages us to look at the world in a new and different way.

Today is one of the most ironic days of the Church year.  A few moments ago, we heard that familiar passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus solemnly warns his hearers to beware of practicing their piety before others.  And a few moments from now, we will come forward to receive ashes on our foreheads.  We will leave this place today with the sign of the cross on our foreheads, in perhaps the most public display of piety we engage in all year.  It’s not as though this year is an anomaly; every Ash Wednesday, we are admonished not to practice our piety before others and then we do just that.  On one hand, it might seem that the Church has made a serious liturgical mistake that no one has had the foresight to correct.  On the other hand, Jesus was speaking at a time and in a place where outrageously public displays of piety were commonplace.  Notice how Jesus phrases his warning: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  phariseesJesus is specifically referring to those religious people who heaped up empty phrases in public prayer, gave alms so that they might be praised by others, and fasted for the sake of pious appearance.  In many ways, Jesus is tapping into a long prophetic tradition; the Old Testament prophets frequently chastised their people because so many of them were publicly pious but failed to allow their faith to shape their lives by caring for the poor and needy among them.  If anything there was an excess of public piety in the time of Jesus.  This is not the case today.  For the most part, people are not pious for the sake of appearance anymore; in fact, many people are not even pious in secret.  Our busy and fragmented lives often lead us to forget that we have a responsibility to work on our relationship with God.  Ash Wednesday is an opportunity for us to be publicly reminded of our need for private piety.

In spite of this, we cannot ignore the contradiction between what we heard and what we are about to do.  The injunction against practicing one’s piety before others seems to preclude getting dirt smudged on our faces.  It is crucial for us to notice the irony in this situation.  In her attempt to live out the teachings of Jesus, the Church created a liturgy that seems to contradict one of our Lord’s teachings.  It’s terribly ironic.  Remember that irony is not just a rhetorical device; it’s meant to grab our attention and insist that we look at a situation more closely.

In the case of Ash Wednesday, the irony of having ashes smudged on our forehead even as we hear Jesus tell us to avoid similar acts of piety points us to an even deeper irony, an even more significant contradiction.  A few weeks ago, I was looking through Heavenly Rest’s archives and discovered an interesting newspaper clipping.  It was from the “Corrections” page of the Abilene Reporter News and the headline was “Reverend Gerhart alive and well.”  It seems that in an article from the previous week, the newspaper had incorrectly referred to Mrs. Gerhart as the widow of our celebrated former rector, causing consternation in the Gerhart household, surprise at Heavenly Rest, and concern in the Abilene community.  The first sentence of the article is wonderful: “The Reverend Willis P. Gerhart, retired long-time pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, is very much alive and ‘quite active at times’ for a man on the threshold of 90 years of age.”  Under the picture of Parson Gerhart (who did look very good for 89), the caption read “Willis P. Gerhart: still going strong.”  Things like this happen every once and a while and I always wonder how a person responds.  How did it feel for Parson Gerhart when he read that the Reporter News thought he had died?  More importantly, what changed in his life?  Did he feel as though he was living on borrowed time?  Did he feel as though he had more left to do?  Or did he feel that the life he had left to live was a gift?

Today, we all have the opportunity to ask ourselves these questions.  When you go up to receive the imposition of ashes, someone will push back your hair, look in to your eyes and say, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Remember that your time on earth is temporary and may very well end without warning.  Remember that you are going to die.  It’s as if all of us opened up the paper this morning and read our obituary.  ashesThis may unsettle us, it may make us uncomfortable, it may even cause us to despair.  But we are also impelled to ask how this awareness of our mortality can change our lives.  Because here is the extraordinary and ironic thing: after we are told that we are going to die, we leave this place and continue to live.  This deep irony is meant to transform us.  It’s meant to give us an opportunity to examine our lives and ask how this encounter with our mortality will change us.  Will we feel as though we are living on borrowed time?  Will we feel as though we have more left to do in our lives?  Or will we feel that the life we have to live is a gift from the God who created and redeemed us?

There is an even deeper irony to this day.  In our liturgy, we acknowledge our wretchedness, we call ourselves miserable sinners, and we affirm that we are unworthy of God’s forgiveness.  At the same time, we not only acknowledge the fact that we get to continue living even after we have ashes smudged on our foreheads, we celebrate the fact that we have the opportunity to live a new kind of life, a Resurrection life that transcends even the mortality that we acknowledge today.  And the irony is that this Resurrection life was promised to us by God through Jesus Christ while we were still sinners who had embraced the power of death.  The irony is that even though we expect God to punish us sorely for our misdeeds, God promises life to us through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Lent, therefore, is not meant to be a time when we see what we can live without or how much we can take on before we collapse.  Lent is not meant to be a time for us to focus on our unworthiness before God.  Lent is not even meant to be a time for us to be profoundly aware of our sinfulness.  Lent is an opportunity for us to see our lives as a gift from the God who created and redeemed us.  Lent is an opportunity for us to walk in newness of life, to try on this Resurrection life promised to us through Jesus Christ.  Lent is an opportunity for us to remember that in spite of the fact that we had embraced the power of Death, God sent Jesus Christ to bring us Life.  And isn’t that ironic?

One thought on “Dust, Ashes, and things that are actually ironic

  1. Yep. I love the juxtaposition of imposing ashes on the foreheads of parishioners, reminding them of their eventual death, and then distributing the sacrament and its promises of renewed love. Isn’t being a priest awesome?

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