In the Breaking is the Healing, A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Readings appointed for Ash Wednesday can be found here 

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Last night, at our Shrove Tuesday celebration, a small boy in our congregation asked my why we burn the palms. My reply?

Because they were once alive and they now are dead and become earth again. They remind us that alive things, including people, become dead things and return to the earth. And that in living and in dying we are loved by God.   

In retrospect (and when not standing outside with a crowd of tweens standing too close for my comfort to the burning palms) I would have said more.  But how much can a wee one take in on a cold night when the smoke is pouring from a galvanized tin?  So, now I go on, and consider the palms which were burned into ash, and the smoke that stung our eyes, and the cheering parade that led to death on a hill, and the first breath become the last. 

And, our own confrontation of what is our end, and what is inevitable. But, bound up in that inevitability, the equally inevitable truth of of mercy and love and grace.  

We ask for mercy knowing that there is mercy. We ask for pardon, knowing there is forgiveness. We tilt our heads, knowing there is hope. We raise our palms, knowing we’ll be fed.

Broken, made whole. Burnt, made complete. Crushed, made new.

Without breaking, there is no healing. Without death, there is no life. And, what will come is hope and what will come is mercy. And, so the smoke stings and the questions are raised as bits of ash are caught by the wind. And, small children ask questions that become sermons because there is more to the question than can be contained in a word hastily cobbled together on a cold night.

And, so considering the beauty of the broken I find myself musing on the poem The Bread I Break, by 20th century Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

This bread I break was once the oat,
This wine upon a foreign tree
Plunged in its fruit;
Man in the day or wine at night
Laid the crops low, broke the grape's joy.

Once in this time wine the summer blood
Knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,
Once in this bread
The oat was merry in the wind;
Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.

This flesh you break, this blood you let
Make desolation in the vein,
Were oat and grape
Born of the sensual root and sap;
My wine you drink, my bread you snap.


Once oats waving in the breeze, once grapes hung thick upon the vine. Once a baby, now a man. Once celebrated then denigrated. Raised up and torn down.

Without the living, there is no the dying. Without the dying, there is no new life. Without the new life, there is no healing. And, God has mercy upon us.

The grapes are plucked and thus they die. But in their death they become the wine. The wheat is broken and the chaff is burnt. But in the breaking there is bread. And this bread, it is broken for us, and this wine it is poured for us—and out of breaking there is healing and we raise our hands and tilt our heads for the receiving. 

And so we are and so we become. And, God has mercy upon us.

The gathering prayer we use on this first day of the Lenten Season, addresses God in hope and truth, “God, you hate nothing you havemade and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthilylamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remissionand forgiveness”

And, if poetry is not too your liking, the collect invites logic, in proof form. You can take it as a mathematical proof if you like,

God, hates nothing God has made!
God, made us.
Therefore, God does not hate us. 

Psalm 51 offers us more along the lines of this proof—and it is made clear that, when offered our broken hearts, God’s response is one of compassion and acceptance. In the face of our brokenness, God forgives our past failings and our desire to for a new heart is enough. 

And so, the season of Lent is a season of invitation back to the table--of reconciliation and restoration of the wholeness of community.  The broken relationships, the broken promises, the worries and anxieties--Lent becomes a time in which we work towards the vision of wholeness--when we are invited to become a new creation in Christ. 

This is not an invitation to destruction, but an invitation to restoration. 

So those lively palms, waved high on Palm Sunday, become brittle and bunched and broken into a pail. Fire is lit and the flames leap high.  What remains is dust and ash and bits. And, we are restored.

Sorted and sifted, they become more than palm and more than ash. A remembrance and a promise and a hope. And, we are made whole.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. And, we are made new.

Without the living, there is no the dying. Without the dying, there is no new life. Without the new life, there is no healing. And, God has mercy upon us.

God has mercy upon us.

God has mercy upon us.





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