“Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down” (Ash Wednesday) February 13, 2013

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 How many of you remember these words… Ring-a-round a rosie, A pocket full of posies, Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down. Children have been singing these or similar words on playgrounds for a little over two hundred years. Although many of us have heard that this rhyme has something to do with the Great Plague that swept through Europe in the mid-1600’s, that interpretation is unlikely, particularly since no one made that connection prior to the Second World War. Most likely, this simple rhyme originated as one that was much like “Here we go ‘round the Mulberry bush,” where children simply skipped and played in a circle. How these words became what they are, is apparently lost to history. In any case, the closing lines are meaningful to us today for an entirely different reason. Today, as we celebrate Ash Wednesday, we remember our need for repentance. Ash Wednesday is unlike many of our church holy days. It is not bright and cheerful, but instead is dark and sorrowful. The prophet Joel calls to God’s people to return to God saying… (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)

2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill.

Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. 14 Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.
15 16

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. 17 Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, 1

a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” So we hear the prophet’s call to repent and to return to faithfulness in God, but why now? Why today? What is the significance of today? Ash Wednesday is not a repeatable date on the calendar, like Christmas on December 25th, but moves about, sometimes earlier, sometimes later in the year because it is connected to another moveable date, Easter. In fact, Ash Wednesday is 46 days before Easter. But why 46? Isn’t that sort of arbitrary? Well, no, not really. I have long known that Ash Wednesday and its call to repentance and even the call to give up something or to fast, was connected to the 40 days during which Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert before he began his public ministry, but 40 days doesn’t really account for why this day of remembrance is forty-six days before Easter instead of just 40, or does it? This year, for the first time, I was curious enough about this to pull out my calendar and start counting. If you count forty days from today, you arrive, not at Easter, but land smack dab on top of… Palm Sunday, itself, another celebration. Palm Sunday is intended to remember a joyous day, the day of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and if we were still fasting it would either be less joyous or, perhaps, too much of a temptation to continue the fast. We find therefore that forty days of fasting and prayer, begun on Ash Wednesday, will end the evening before Palm Sunday. Many people, of course, will continue through Palm Sunday and into Easter itself, but now we see the connection between Jesus’ time in the wilderness and Ash Wednesday. There is another connection that is also meaningful. The Ashes that we use on Ash Wednesday are traditionally made by burning the leftover palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration and so, as we put on the ashes we remember our failures of the last year. It wasn’t that long ago that we shouted “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” We had such high hopes. Jesus would be the king and Lord of our lives, but too often, that wasn’t what happened. The past year hasn’t been perfect. We said things we shouldn’t have said, we did things we shouldn’t have done. We haven’t acted like Jesus was the Lord of our lives. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. As we remember our failures from this past year, we begin to remember why it is that we need to repent. We have fallen. We have drifted. We have been intentionally disobedient. We have sinned. We have turned our backs to God. This isn’t new. Failure is common to the human condition and common to followers of Jesus Christ. Paul knew that just as well as we do, and, as he wrote to the church in Corinth he said this… (2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10)

We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. 2 For he says,

“In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in 2

beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. Paul calls upon the followers of Jesus Christ to be reconciled to God, reminding us that Jesus, who had no sin, took up our sin for us so that through him we might receive the righteousness of God. We remember that we have failed, but we also know that just like the children who fell down after singing, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” after we have fallen, we can get right back up again. All that we need to do is to repent, ask for forgiveness, accept that Christ has paid the price of our failure, and begin moving forward once again. A little less than a year ago we shouted “Hosanna in the highest,” and then we went out into the world, tried to do things our own way… and failed miserably. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. Today we give thanks that despite our failure, Christ provides a way forward and invites us to repentance and forgiveness. Indeed, we say, “Ashes, ashes we all fall down,” but also… “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” and also… In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.


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