At first sight Ash Wednesday, or more specifically, the Ash Wednesday rituals must look a bit odd.
Imagine being brought into church as a total outsider and witnessing ash being placed on people's heads, in the shape of the cross. You might rightly wonder what on earth was going on; strange lot these Christians.
So what is going on? What is the point of Ash Wednesday? And why is so important that we never lose its message? Well, I think that Ash Wednesday calls us back to some of the most foundational characteristics of our faith.
It firstly calls us humility. As we look at the world and gaze on God we surely must recognise our smallness, but even as we remember our smallness we must also accept our significance. We should not stand before God with a false humility, proclaiming that we are, 'ever so humble.' We are not to be modern day Uriah Heeps. Revelling in humility is no form of humility at all.
Yes, we are small, but we are God's children, we are chosen, called, predestined to be agents of his grace. Ash Wednesday asks to accept this our mandate; confident that we can be agents of His grace but not in our own strength. Ash Wednesday, in the Words of the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation, asks us to repent of 'the pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God.'
The prophet Joel describes the casting off of pride leading to trust in God as 'returning.' And what do we find when we repent in order to return? 'Steadfast love, and blessing.'
Ash Wednesday invites us to receive God's steadfast love, which is our blessing, so that we in turn can become a real blessing to those who we encounter.
And this is the point of the Gospel story we have just heard, a story which incidentally is depicted on the reredos behind the altar. Why don't you gaze at it afresh when you come to receive communion
According to the customs of the day Jesus should have agreed to the stoning of the woman caught in adultery. But he doesn't. He instead does something remarkable: he reminds the gathered crowd that they are all sinners.
By inviting those without sin to cast the first stone, he invited the crowd to abandon hypocrisy, to recognise themselves as they really are before God and to exercise grace; to become a source of blessing and affirmation. That too is part of our Ash Wednesday invitation:
To abandon hypocrisy, to recognise ourselves as deeply fallen and as a consequence to become a blessing to those equally imperfect folk who we encounter in the ordinary waif and wain of life.
And here is the great Lenten paradox: we become agents of grace and sources of blessing not because we reach some superhuman level of moral perfection, but instead, because we recognise our ingrained weakness and sinfulness. None of this of course means that sin is okay or that morality should be thrown out of the window. Consider the last words of Jesus to the woman:
'Go your way and from now on sin no longer.'
This Ash Wednesday we need to hear those words for ourselves. We need to encounter the Christ who seeks to meet us as we really are, in our sinfulness, but who seeks also to affirm and bless us with his healing grace, for that is how we get better, that is how we increase in holiness, that is how we become sources of blessing and agents of grace. That is how we become Christian. It is all done through an honest encounter with Jesus, the great redeemer.
So today let us approach the altar with soft and open hearts, thankful that Jesus wants to feed, affirm, bless and sanctify us so that we may in turn feed, affirm and bless those who we meet and encounter as we make our pilgrimage through life.
And by the way do gaze afresh at the Reredos; in some ways I think it was made for days such as Ash Wednesday.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown