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Ash Wednesday

17th FEB 2021

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest, Hungary Joel 2:1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14 Remember: You are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is traditional in some places to burn the dry and dusty palm branches or crosses from the previous Palm Sunday’s hosanna-filled liturgy to produce the ashes for the current year’s Ash Wednesday service and ritual imposition of ashes. That is much more difficult to do this year, if not downright impossible, in the midst of our pandemic-induced seclusion. Perhaps you have prepared a smudge of ash for use this evening by yourself and by the members of your own household. On the other hand, perhaps electronic embers racing across your monitor screen are all you can muster of the ephemeral and passing this year. The burning of branches or fronds is a good custom, I think, when it can be done safely, for it reminds us of the recurring cycle not only of the church year but of our own years as well, with their complement of ups and downs, achievements and disappointments. We are all part of the same process or plan of creation of which all things are a part – life and death, joy and pain, good and evil. Nevertheless, our time together on this, our favourite planet, is short indeed. The ashes of Ash Wednesday bear an uncanny resemblance to what will be left of us all a thousand years from now. They bring us together as nothing else can. Like it or not, they are life’s common physical -- and spiritual -- denominator. A NASA scientist once quipped, “All the atoms on earth and in our bodies were in stardust before the solar system formed.” He might have added, but did not, that to stardust they shall also return. There is surely something immediately both disquieting and comforting in the recognition of this reality. In God’s good time and grace, random atoms and molecules have come together to form you and me. But as famed author Bill Bryson once wryly observed when musing on this reality: At some point today’s obsequious molecules will soon enough tire of being us and will wander off and do other things. Ash Wednesday is a day to remember such things. “Remember,” says priest or minister as he or she imposes a smudge of ash on the forehead, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Yet, perhaps paradoxically, Ash Wednesday is also the day upon which we remember that we are at the same time much more than exquisitely assembled electrons and molecules; here today and gone tomorrow. We call on ourselves to remember this because it is too easy to forget our purpose and God’s plan for us. We remember because -- even in the midst of a pandemic or perhaps especially in

the midst of a pandemic -- it is easy to get caught up in the minutia of our daily existence and to forget the sublime and transcendent which is also our inheritance. Remembering after all is at the heart of our faith. Scripture itself has been called a book of remembrance; and so it is. In reading it, we remember God’s saving deeds among the people of ancient Israel. In it, we remember the salvation brought to us by our Lord at Calvary. In Scripture, Christ charges us to share his body and blood in remembrance of him. And, we of course also recall the milestones of our own lives – the births, baptisms, weddings, and deaths. They too provide stability and strength, perhaps especially in a world suddenly grown so ephemeral and uncertain. Remembering always takes us back to our roots. And, our roots are found beneath the tree of the cross. That is where we come from as followers of Christ. At our baptism, priest or minister anointed us with oil in the sign of the cross as we were “marked as Christ’s own for ever.” A cross greets us at each Sunday service. And in our daily prayers we cross ourselves in the name of the Trinity. The cross of ash on our forehead today conforms us to the image of the crucified One, the Word Made Flesh, through whom, in the expression of the Creed, “all things were made.” And to who all things return. Our Lenten journey begun today will draw to a close at Good Friday in the full meaning of the cross. For, the contradiction of the cross is in reality the paradox of life. In the cross, the order of the universe is transformed; and death becomes life. Our Lenten renunciation is always a celebration of the Kingdom which our Lord preached: A Kingdom close at hand and in our midst. Our spiritual sacrifices and acts of penitence are no longer ends in themselves but an assurance of God’s love at work within us. To give ourselves away as Christ gave himself for us is to embrace redemption and life. Our Lenten journey will take us to Calvary, but it does not end in death. From the ashes of our sins and shortcomings God will raise us up to new life in the resurrection of his Son. That is the promise of Ash Wednesday, this year and every year. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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