the following is a homily on psalm 51 that i offered at first presbyterian church of berkeley, on the event of ash wednesday.
it’s the first time since 1945 that valentine’s day has fallen on ash wednesday. these two holidays seem like an odd couple, don’t they? chocolates and ashes?
but maybe not.
both days center on the heart, of course. we give cards with hearts and chocolates in heart-shaped boxes to loved ones on valentine’s day.
on ash wednesday, we begin lent: a six-week journey together toward easter: the event of God’s unveiled heart.
too much a stretch?
i heard from several friends who said that valentine’s day is an especially difficult day, maybe one of the hardest days: a reminder of the fact that they’re single, and they’d rather not be.
for some, this day can be a reminder of broken hearts. on ash wednesday, we acknowledge broken hearts: not with chocolates, but ashes.
i feel especially sympathetic for those who may have wandered into their first ash wednesday service tonight. those who lean over about two songs in and whisper, “what’s lent mean, again?”
or, “why aren’t you eating chocolate?”
i was a sophomore in college when i first saw folks with ashes smeared in a cross on their foreheads, and heard of friends giving up coffee or chocolate for a season.
“why?” i asked.
“because that’s just what you do,” they’d say.
and i’d leave the conversation just as confused about what lent and ash wednesday were all about.
if this is an unfamiliar tradition for you, that’s okay.
lent is a six-week season in the church calendar in which christians around the world prepare for holy week: palm sunday, good friday, and, of course, resurrection sunday.
as one writer puts it, easter is too profound to take in over one weekend—many christians take several weeks to prepare (living the christian year, 129).
inhabiting God’s story
christians participate in lent in very different ways. some commit to regular prayer, either alone or together, often including a time of confession or repentance.
others fast: maybe from a specific food or activity entirely—or, just for single a day each week.
still others will take up a new act of service: blessing others in some way.
the important thing is less the what and more the why. the aim with any lenten practice is humility, to slow down, to gain greater spiritual awareness of ourselves, of others, of the Incarnate God who goes before us.
observing lent, we’re often told, is a journey: a way for Christ followers to follow the life of Jesus. it’s a chance for us to not only read but participate in and inhabit the story God is telling.
and tonight, ash wednesday, marks the beginning of this lenten season.
but what’s with the ashes? someone leans to their neighbor and asks.
what’s with the ashes?
christians have been celebrating ash wednesday since the 11th century, according to lauren winner, church historian at duke university and one of my favorite writers. though, interestingly, wearing ashes on our foreheads didn’t become popular here in the states until the 1970s, a time when christians were looking for ways to connect their spiritual life with their body.
but wearing ashes can be found throughout scripture: in regard to sacrifice, fasting, and mourning.
in 2 samuel, ashes are worn on the forehead as a sign of grief. one of the key themes of this day is a reminder of our mortality.
“from dust you come,” we hear when the ashes are smeared on us. “and to dust you shall return.”
ashes also used for repentance.
in daniel chapter 9, daniel pleads with God on behalf of jerusalem, wearing “sackcloth and ashes.” a phrase found throughout scripture, wearing sackloth and ashes is a way to embody our repentance (matt 11:21; luke 10:13).
but ashes aren’t only for marking repentance, they’re also part of our purification. ashes are themselves cleansing, we read in hebrews 9.
i was surprised when i first read that ashes can be used as a disinfectant. the world health organization recommends ash when soap is not available: “as soap may be in short supply during emergencies,” their website reads, “the use of ash, sand, or other culturally acceptable substitutes should be promoted.”
in emergencies, ashes can be used to cleanse us.
psalm 51, read for us earlier this evening, feels like a fitting emergency.
a difficult story
the header to this psalm reads:
“to the leader. a psalm of david, when the prophet nathan came to him, after he had gone in to bathsheba.”
as the story goes, king david spotted bathsheba bathing while he was walking on his palatial rooftop—in the spring, a time when “kings go out to battle,” though he remained in jerusalem while his military fought on his behalf.
noticing her exposed beauty, king david asked about her.
“this is bathsheba,” david was told. “the wife of uriah the hittite” (2 samuel 11:3).
“so david sent messengers to get her,” we’re told, “and she came to him, and he lay with her” (v.4).
the biblical text doesn’t say whether bathsheba consented or not, though, as it often goes, the power dynamics here makes the question of consent a moot point.
reading more of david’s story, we are reminded not only of the violence he carries out on bathsheba, but his violence against her husband, uriah, too.
when he hears of her pregnancy, david throws his political weight around again, ensuring that uriah does not return from battle alive.
this is a difficult story. it would be hard to call it a love story, but it’s certainly a story of broken hearts. and this is the story that motivated the psalm read for us tonight.
“have mercy on me, o God,” the psalmist writes, “according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (51:1–2).
the psalms: a cycle
the psalms’s cyclical nature fascinates me. they began as a song written by an individual, or a small group. but then, they became part of ancient israel’s corporate worship. in the process, they become God’s word to us.
like ancient israel, we use these words to worship God, and God uses them to offer us hope.
and what i appreciate about this particular psalm is that it speaks not only of david’s broken heart, but all of ours—heavy-hearted, we, too, are in need of cleansing.
david’s appalling behavior may have originally motivated these words, but in worship, they become my words, as I acknowledge my own guilt.
how have I used my power to hurt others? this psalm invites me to ask.
we don’t have to be king david to know what it’s like to wake up to meet a face in the mirror that we wish wasn’t ours.
and so these words become the words of anyone who has desired cleansing, not just outwardly, but in our innermost being.
but because these were israel’s hymnal, they didn’t stop at individual repentance. these words were used to mourn their unrighteousness as a community.
sometimes nations are in need of repentance, too. and this psalm fits that need.
i mentioned earlier that valentine’s day last fell on ash wednesday on february 14, 1945—a few months before the fall of germany in world war two.
this also happens to be the anniversary of the dresden firebombings, when american and british aircrafts dropped 3,400 tons of explosives on a city largely removed from the war, when germany was already on the verge of surrender.
the dresden bombings killed as many as 135,000 people, including civilians and children. it was the single most destructive bombing of the war.
the city burned for days, leaving streets littered with the ashes of its people.
what does it mean for our nation to remember the ashes of so many lives on ash wednesday?
lamenting acts against us
and, if this psalm is sung corporately, it is inevitably sung by those who have themselves been victimized by others’ violence. this lament becomes the words of victims, too.
so this psalm also invites us to ask: how have others broken my heart?
it’s often reported that those who have been violated will turn first to a hot shower for reprieve. the psalmist’s words of longing for cleansing fit their experience.
“purge me with hyssop, and i shall be clean; wash me, and i shall be whiter than snow” (v.7).
in all of these cases, we desire cleansing for the brokenness in our lives. and that, it seems, is what God is after: our broken hearts, handed over.
“the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (v.17).
where we are broken, God will not turn us away, but make us whole.
grandma lucy’s bath
in her beautiful memoir, the preaching life, barbara brown taylor remembers her grandmother: a strong, revered woman who ran a boarding school in small-town georgia.
“she loved us like nothing else in the world and we knew it,” taylor writes. and “…her best gifts were her baths.”
“when night came she treated me like long lost royalty, filling the tub with suds and then beckoning me in, where she washed each of my limbs in turn and polished my skin with her great soft sponge.
after she dried me off i lay down for the next part of the ritual. First, she anointed me with jergen’s lotion, starting with my neck and finishing up with the soles of my feet.
then she reached for her dusting powder—evening in paris—and tickled me all over with the pale blue puff. when she had done, i knew i was precious. i was absolutely convinced i was loved, and nothing that has happened since, not even her death, has shaken that conviction” (18–19).
it turns out a good cleansing is not just religious duty, but one of our deepest longings. it is just what we find on ash wednesday—but not, most likely, how we’d ever expect.
there is a kind of brokenness that no amount of soap can get at. in some emergencies, ashes are the only option.
“look at the nations and watch–and be utterly amazed,” God tells us through the prophet habbakuk. “for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told” (habbakuk 1:5).
God meets us where we’re at
when we acknowledge our brokenness before God, God promises healing—but not how we’d ever expect.
we’ve grown all too familiar with the oddity of it, having grown up on this side of easter, but God’s surprising solution for our brokenness is death—His own.
in other words, God meets us where we’re at.
ash wednesday is when we come together to remember and to prepare for the moment when God meets us at the site of death, marks us with His own death, and promises healing and wholeness—for our deepest brokenness.
i want you to take the next few minutes, friends, to close your eyes and focus your thoughts. i want you to try to quiet all those voices in your mind, try to focus on your heart.
where’s the heaviness?
is it because of something you’ve done, maybe?
something our nation has done?
maybe it’s something that has been done against you?
perhaps, it’s all three.
whatever is heavy on your heart now, focus on that. hold onto it. put it at the front of your mind.
in a few minutes, we’ll be invited to come forward to receive ashes, in the shape of a cross, right where you need them most.
merciful God, we thank You for inviting us into this time and this space, where You meet us precisely at the site of our heaviness, where our hearts feel most broken, where we crave wholeness and healing.
we thank You, Incarnate God, for showing us that there is no darkness that is foreign to You.
by Your Spirit, help us not to hurry through our heaviness as we journey with You this lent, knowing that You are just as near to us in these heavy places as You are anywhere else. help us remember that You promise not to leave us here.
as we go from this place, gracious God, hold us in our heaviness, reminding us that we are not alone, but that You are even now shaping all of our broken pieces into glory.
merciful Father, we lift up all of these requests to You in the name of Jesus, who is the Christ and who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.