Ashes on your Brow

Scriptures: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:1-1

Let us pray:

Open our eyes that we may behold mysteries, O God, and see you in the every day.  May these words and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Let me begin with a poem from Malcolm Guite:

Ash Wednesday

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow

Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross;

The forests of the world are burning now

And you make late repentance for the loss.

But all the trees of God would clap their hands,

The very stones themselves would shout and sing,

If you could covenant to love these lands

And recognize in Christ their lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,

He weeps to see the ancient places burn,

And still you make what purchases you please

And still to dust and ashes you return.

But Hope could rise from ashes even now

Beginning with this sign upon your brow.[1]


How many of you observed an Ash Wednesday service on Valentines Day this past Wednesday?  I was not able to get even to the local church closest to where I live with evening family routines and responsibilities, so I missed the chance to observe this multi-layered rite wherein ashes from the past year imposed upon the head speak: They speak both to my brokenness – whether it be broken dreams, aspirations, covenants, promises, visions, or complex life circumstances where I simply could not bring forth my best effort – but they also speak to my oneness with our broken Christ – the one who died to make us whole.

I was reminded in my devotional reading for Ash Wednesday that there are multiple layers to the origin and meaning of the ashes.  In the Hebrew scriptures, there are numerous passages regarding “repenting in dust and ashes.”

“Sprinkling ashes on one’s head was a sign of mourning and grief – the opposite of the oil of gladness – and went with “rending” one’s garments, a rejection of all those sleek tricks of self-presentation with which we seek to disguise our true selves from God and from others.  …But there is deeper wisdom still in the tradition of ashing.  For the ash that is left after purging fires is itself a fertilizer, a life-enabler, a source of new growth; we place these unpromising leavings on the garden and new things bloom.

The cross of ash becomes a deeper symbol still, for what is destroyed in that emblem of all our destructiveness is sin itself.  In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, God takes the worst we can do…and turns it into the very best [God] can do for us.”[2]

Have you stopped in the Gorge recently to take a look around?  The ashes left from destructive fires last summer will release nutrients into the soil and eventually enable so much incredible growth to burst free!

Think of Bird Meadows and go for a visit this coming spring.  It will be teaming with new shoots of life.  Reflect on Yellowstone’s come back and the Mt. Saint Helens Volcanic Monument.  Right before our eyes we have God shouting out in flowers, “Witness!  Behold! I have done a new thing – and I can do a new thing in you, too if you but believe!”

I would be remiss as an educator and as a Christian environmentalist if I did not also, along with Guite, point out that,

“In our own days of ecological crisis, the ash has perhaps acquired yet another layer of symbolic truth: both the fire and the ash [are] signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which [God] also cares.”[3]

  1. Sibley Towner connects this ecological awareness by observing that missing in today’s lectionary is inclusion of a main theme of Genesis 17, land promise.[4] Indeed, ashes on our brow remind us that physically Abram, along with ourselves, arise from the earth, become stewards of the earth, and eventually return to the earth.

Abram led a devious life in Egypt in order to protect Sarai and any hope of God’s promise coming to fruition.  So devious, in fact, that God had to intervene a second time to point him in the right direction…it wasn’t Ishmael and Hagar that were to be the promise fulfilled, but direct issue from Sarai and Abram – even at 99 years old.  Finally, they listen, and with new names befitting their new understanding, they set out to let God fulfill God’s promise to them.  I find it ironic, though, that with the additional intervention, God inflicts on Abraham a second covenantal stipulation conveniently left out of this Sunday’s pericope: circumcision for he and all his male household.

Commentator Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

“Only here does God mention what Abraham and his descendants will do for God: “Every male among you shall be circumcised” (17:12). Torah offers no rationale for this commandment, but it is nonnegotiable. Those who fail to be circumcised will have broken the covenant (17:14).

One can only guess why these verses have been left out of the lectionary. Perhaps the subject matter was deemed too explicit for public worship? Whatever the reason, the omission deprives hearers of imagining Abraham’s response to this new development in the covenant. His faithfulness will now require more of him than simply answering to his new name. He is about to become bodily involved.

On the second Sunday of Lent, this point merits attention. We do not head straight to Easter from the spa or the shopping mall. Instead, we are invited to spend forty days examining the nature of our own covenant with God. Upon what does that relationship depend? What do we trust to give us life? What concrete practices allow us to become bodily involved with God? If we were to ask God for a new name, what might that name be? What new purpose might that name signify?”[5]

A third motif is also missing from the passages selected by the revised common lectionary committee: doubt, as evidenced by Sarah’s laughter.  This is a key motif that, of all of the other three, is one of the least spoken about today yet is prevalent and growing all around us.  “God?  Do you really think there is still such a thing as a personal God who cares about what really happens down here?  Just look at my life, just look at (fill in the blank)! God, if there ever was such, must be either supremely cold, distant, uncaring, or just too remote or out-of-touch to connect to contemporary reality of humanity.”  Sobering statistics for this perspective can be found in the Barna Group survey just released; I quote:

“Meet Generation Z: The first truly “post-Christian” generation. Barna conducted a major study to examine the culture, beliefs and motivations shaping young people in the U.S. and found that the percentage of 13- to 18-year-olds who identify as atheist is double that of the general population.”

It is enough for me to want to cry out with Jesus his words we will hear later from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So whether or not you attended an Ash Wednesday service and had imposition of ashes on your forehead, I would invite you to remember the multi-layered history, inlaid with a myriad of symbolism as we enter this sacred journey once again to the upper room, to the garden, to the courtroom of the Temple, and to the hill of the skull and the cross.  Examine yourselves, cross-examine yourself, even as the one on the cross was examined, and may the tarnish we have accumulated over this past year be burned up, turned into ash, and given over to the tender care of the Master Gardener, the Lord, the Giver and Renewer of life, even Him who is the Christ.  Amen?  May it be so.

[1] Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter (London: Canterbury Press, 204)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] W. Sibley Towner, “Exegetical Perspective, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16” in Feasting on the Word – Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor ((Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16” in Feasting on the Word – Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor ((Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How do you picture the Holy Spirit? There are various images in Scripture: wind, dove and flame. Do these images resonate with you? Why? Are there other images?
  2. What do you make of the almost violent words in this passage? Words like “expel” and “torn”? Are there other biblical stories that portray the Spirit as gentle? Is it important for the Holy Spirit to have both characteristics?
  3. How do you mark Lent? What Lenten practices do you find meaningful? Why?
  4. How does this story of Jesus’ temptation relate to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation”? What are our temptations?
  5. Compare Mark’s very short version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness with the accounts in Luke and Matthew. Does it matter that Mark doesn’t list the temptations? Is it useful to NOT have them listed?
  6. During challenging seasons in your life, what has sustained you? What did you learn about yourself? God? Others?

Household Prayer: Morning

God of ancient covenants, your steadfast love and faithfulness are still new every morning.  I thank you that I can begin this day in the confidence of your abiding love and unending mercy.  Help me to treat others – family, friends, coworkers, classmates, and even strangers – with love and mercy in our encounters today.  Open my eyes to the places, people, and circumstances in which your kingdom has come near.  I pray in the name of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, my Savior.  Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

God of peace, as the day draws to a close and the evening draws in around me, I think of the creatures of the earth that also seek rest in the hours of the night.  You love them even as you love me, and your covenant faithfulness covers all of us.  So, with the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, and the tiny ones who burrow in the ground, I offer you all thanks and praise: for your unending goodness; for the beauty of our home, the earth; for your gift of life.  As your colorful bow now rests in the clouds, so may we color the earth with the ways of peace until all creation rests with you in completeness.  In Christ’s name I pray, Amen.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
This entry was posted in Conversation Starters, Poetry, Sermon. Bookmark the permalink.

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