notre dame montreal

Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2010

Corinne went to Olney yesterday for the pancake festival on Shrove Tuesday, they were lined up three deep along the pavements because it is a day of fun, making pancakes. Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, is a part of Lent, where we are historically supposed to use up all of our enjoyable stuff before we fast during Lent to Easter. Crowds will turn out on Shrove Tuesday to eat pancakes, have fun and enjoy the celebrations, but they do not turn up on Ash Wednesday to wear ashes.

Ash Wednesday is not a day which is likely to catch on, no special little bags of ashes to buy in the supermarket, just easter eggs.

In fact if some people were to walk into Church this evening and see what was going on then their worst fears about Christians would be confirmed. They would see us all as a bunch of miserable people repenting and wearing ashes, who went around angry in case somebody somewhere was enjoying themselves.

There is this perception of us Christians as being a bit holy, and by that I mean removed, unreal, not inhabting the same space as ordinary people. Not enjoying ourselves, fixated on sin, less real. This means that we don’t understand the hopes and fears of ordinary people, that we are different in a sad way, it surely means that we don’t know how to let our hair down and enjoy ourselves. So if anybody comes in here tonight who is not familiar with Ash Wednesday and sees us repenting with ashes, then all of their worst fears will be confirmed.

Surely as Christians we know that there are times to laugh, but the perception is that we are not able to have fun, that our faith is a bit miserable. Billy Joel sang

"I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints."

So we need to think what Ash Wednesday is all about. We are clearly not, or we should not be obsessed with sin, neither should we be unable to enjoy life. Ash Wednesday is not about that at all. I actually value Ash Wednesday and the fact that few people come, doesn’t that make it just a little bit more special?

So let’s think about the service and what is going on. People put all kinds of things on their faces, mud, sea weed, even some of the most lavish cosmetics use some bizarre ingedients. But none of them as far as I know use ash. Mud might chase away your toxins and leave your skin feeling refreshed, but ash is just ash and will need to be washed away with water.

So why do we bother?

There are two things which ashes do very clearly. Ashes remind us of mortality and death.

We come and remind ourselves that we are mortal and will die.
We also take time to reflect about our own sins


Yes we know that we are mortal and we say those dreadful words about ashes and dust.

"You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).

In the rush and hurry of daily life we often forget the really important fact that life is very temporary. Ash Wednesday is meant to be the ultimate occasion when we remind ourselves that everything else in our lives is a flash in the pan. All of the diversions which distract us and seem so important are very temporary. It is worth reminding ourselves once in a while that life hangs by a thread. Understanding death helps us regain perspective on life.


Ashes are a very traditional and Biblical reminder of sorrow for sin. When we gather together on Ash Wednesday our service speaks of God’s law and our shortcomings. So there is opportunity for our repentance and change and seeking God’s forgiveness.

To hear us Christians talk of our forgiveness is occasionally embarrassing. It is as though God had no choice. The self assurance and confidence that God will forgive us again and again, no matter what we do, is worrying. God's forgiveness can seem like some celestial vending machine where we put our sins in and out comes our forgiveness! 

God's forgiveness should not be thought of as automatic, even if we know, trust, and confess God. Tonight is a good time to contemplate that our sins hurt. They cost God something. We often focus on the physical pain of Jesus' death during Holy Week, but ashes give us the opportunity to focus on the pain of our actions, understanding that each act of forgiveness costs God something, even if forgiveness is what God does, does not mean it is obligatory.

In all of the banner waving presumptuousness which can infect our living and worship, Ash Wednesday is a good time to come back down to earth and remind ourselves of how poor we really are at doing what God has entrusted to us. Even the earth from which God made us and to which we will return, we have polluted and destroyed to an inch of its life. So we stand before God in a posture of sorrow


These two things are very important, mortality and sin. We put ash on our heads and that reminds us of them both, but it doesn’t end there. The ashes are not just heaped upon our heads like some miserable worms. The ashes are used to make the sign of the cross.

This means that that our mortality and our sin is viewed in the light of the story of Easter. We affirm our faith that although our bodies return to dust, we shall be raised with Christ in his resurrection. So, although we are sinful we shall be saved through the power of the cross which triumphed over all sin.

Tonight we start a pilgrimage, a journey through Easter which is taken in the light of the most supreme truth of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We recognise that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves and we affirm our faith in him through the power of his cross. We know that when we humble ourselves God is merciful.

We burn the palms from previous years to make ash, not to show that we are incapable of celebrating, but to remind ourselves that we associate ourselves with Jesus not just in the thrill of the crowd, but in the depths of his passion and death. We are willing to be there not just when things are going well and what we do is popular, we are willing to stand out from the crowd. As we share in his death, so we will come to share also in the joy of his resurrection at Easter. Amen.