A Homily for Ash Wednesday


Our liturgy, as it travels among the seasons of the year… in its proclamation of the faith… the best we can say for our collective speculations as to the nature of God, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit… the best we can say of our faith is that it is ambiguous… at best….. that our faith is in fact true only in its paradoxical nature to the way of things… reflective of the fact that we live within the tension of paradox… that we live amid the rhythm of ambiguity and acquainted with the grief and sweetness of irony. One thing that is sure about our lives of faith…. Is in reality they are unsure, subject to the terrible and beautiful iterations of a temporary life.

In T.S. Elliot’s poem the Journey of the Magi, the poet describes the birth mythology of the Christ, luring us into the happy institutional narrative… and he describes the birth as hard and bitter agony…. Implying that the birth of Christ is in truth “unsatisfying” in the face of our thirst for meaning and purpose in the nihilism of our post-modern world. Even Luke in his narrative of the resurrection of Jesus depicts the disciples as unable to recognize the resurrected Jesus. What do we make of that up and against our compulsion for certainty? I’m just saying that we are not alone in the ambiguous tension of the life of faith… there is plenty of warrant for it in art and scripture…. Worry about someone who is so very sure.

But today… today is Ash Wednesday… the only day in our liturgical life of faith that is unambiguous… today we proclaim the one truth about which we are sure… and that is that we are dust and ash… that we come from the dust of the earth and to the dust we shall return… That we die…. That civilizations are temporary… that all is vanity…. It is kind of nice to be sure of something…. If we are paying attention, we know that life is short, mutable, transient… and we know that our brief sojourn in this life is a gift…. Owning that reality evokes gratitude.

Death is the mother of beauty, Wallace Stevens says…. Death is the mother of beauty… That is a consummate statement of faith. Think on that. And think on this question…. This day, this day of ashes I just want to leave you with a question…. A question perhaps that you will carry this Lent…. And the question is: What germinates in the ashes? Is there life buried in our ruin? Oh, don’t ask me to tell you… I can’t tell you…. It is something you must find out for yourself…. It is all ash and dust, brothers and sisters… that is something we know for sure…. And the great question is…. Is there something more true, a deeper mystery? Is there something more?

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