The psalmist writes, “So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, ESV). Teach us to number our days. Tonight we have come to make the prayer of the psalmist our prayer, too. Tonight we have come to be reminded that the number of our days is short, even if, by God’s grace, we reach the ages of seventy, eighty, ninety. Tonight we have come to receive the wisdom of ashes that remind us of our created-ness, of our mortality. That our lives are but a breath before God. That we live and move and have our being only by the grace of God. So, teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom, we pray.
Teach us to number our days. The poet Annie Dillard writes that, “How we spend our days is of our course how we spend our lives.” How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. We order and number our days, keeping track of how we spend them, in various ways. There is the Gregorian Calendar which we use to keep track of the spending of our days. It tells us that today is Wednesday, February 14, 2018. And added to that is the specific cultural and secular ways we account for the spending of our days. It’s that secular cultural calendar that tells us today is Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day says something about what we believe about how we spend our days, about romance and love. There are other high and holy days of the secular calendar. There is Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and of course the patriotic holy-days which ask us perform certain secular liturgical rituals to the state. Flag Day, Veteran’s Day, the 4th of July, all telling us something about how we should spend our days, about who we worship, from where our salvation comes, and to whom belongs our allegiance.
But the church has its own calendar, its own way to help us live with the wisdom for which the psalmist prays. Yes, we might not find words like Advent or Christmas or Lent or even Ash Wednesday in Scripture. But there is something deeply biblical about them. They teach us to number our days, to order our lives, according to the overarching narrative of God’s salvation in Christ. The church year begins not in January, but with Advent—the longing and expectation of Christ’s coming. We celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas, reminding ourselves Christ has come and Christ will come again. We enter into Lent remembering Jesus’ own journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to his death, for us and for our salvation. We gather on Good Friday to remember his bloody death. We wait in silence on Holy Saturday. We celebrate his conquering of the grave on Easter Sunday. Forty-nine days later we remember the sending of the Holy Spirit in power and fire upon the early church at Pentecost. And then we enter the season of Ordinary Time—where we spend most of our days—between the first coming of Christ and waiting for Christ to come all over again.
The church’s calendar is teaching us to number our days that we might gain a heart of wisdom. There is something deeply biblical about the church’s calendar—it teaches us that all our days are lived within the context of God’s story. That each of the stories of our lives are lived, take place within, are caught up in, the larger trinitarian drama of God’s creating, redeeming, and sanctifying work.
And Ash Wednesday has its place in that story, too. The story of God. It reminds us that we are here only by God’s grace. That our mortality and its toil is gift and curse. It reminds us of the curse of sin first heard in Genesis: “from dust you were made and to dust you shall return.” It reminds us of the deep truth that we are finite creatures who are born, who live, and who die. We have a beginning and an end, each given by God.
But what of these ashes we mark our foreheads with? Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, says this: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. . . . And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, NRSV).
Well, leave it to Jesus! He does tonight what he is always doing: putting the question to us, calling us—our lives and the way we mark and spend them—into question. We had just settled in, comforted by the fact that we have come to be taught to number our days, that we have come in search of wisdom and suddenly it seems like Jesus is scolding us for having come at all. Chastised and called to account for practicing our piety before others the Gospel poses to us a question tonight—just what do we think we are doing? Do we think that God is impressed? Jesus has just thrown a bucket of cold whatever on this whole Ash Wednesday enterprise.1
And I think that is as it should be. We often talk about giving things up during Lent, about fasting from meat or from Facebook, about praying more and giving more to those in need. But Jesus reminds us that, well, it’s not about us. The season of Lent isn’t first about what we are doing for God, about what we can offer to God. It’s about the life God has offered us. It’s about what God has already done for us in Christ. Jesus is teaching us how to number our days: that we cannot save ourselves with our piety. We cannot impress God with our piety. Instead, we are reminded of our utter dependency upon God for life, for salvation. We are reminded that we can’t save ourselves, but that only God can do that.
So we have come not to practice our piety before others. Not to impress God or our neighbors. We have come to receive the wisdom of the cross, to be taught the number of our days. The wisdom of the cross that tells us that by nature we live to die, but in Christ we die in order to live. We have come to find our place in the cross-shaped story of Jesus.
And what is that story? Here our cultural and liturgical calendars collide. Here, I think, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday meet (meet up for a date, if you will). It’s the story of God’s never-ending love for us. But the love of God is a love that pierces through the sentinmentality that marks so much of our notions of romance. The love of God is more than the love of mushy hallmark cards and roses that will die and crowded, overpriced restaurants with food that really isn’t all that great. And yet, God is our lover, a jealous lover, who will stop at nothing—not even death—to have us for Himself. The love of God is sacrificial love, suffering love. It is a love that to this day still bears the wounds of the cross.
God’s love becomes mortal in Jesus, takes on flesh and bone. God’s love becomes made of dust like you and me. God’s love dies a death like we will die. And God’s love conquers the grave that you and I might live again. This is the point of Ash Wednesday. Not empty piety. Not public show. But the gospel promise: that we are mere mortals who are born and who will die, who have a beginning and an end, given by God. But in the love of God, in the love of Christ, we are called to a death that will lead to life. Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us that we go this way of death and suffering, we take up our crosses, we fast and pray, not in order to earn God’s love or to show our piety before others, but because Jesus already has gone this way ahead of us. Has already borne the cross before us. We receive the mark of ashes to be reminded of our sin and our death, but more deeply to be reminded of God’s love that went to the grave to overcome our sin and death.
And so we receive these ashes, we enter into Lent not out of obligation. It is not something that is required or demanded of us. But it is a gift given to us in God’s grace. We are invited by God to go this way because we will find that as we journey with Jesus, on the other side of sacrifice, of suffering, of death is the promise of life. Death leads to life. That is the wisdom of the cross. And may it be the wisdom by which we spend our days.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 B. D. McClay, (2018, February 5) “The Comeday of Ash & Roses.” Commonweal.