Ash Wednesday Sermon
"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle. Lifes but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Act V, Scene V, Tragedy of MacBeth
These are the dismal words that Shakespeare puts into the mouth of MacBeth, his tragic would-be king. Some have said you too would be given to dismal words if you were married to Lady MacBeth- but that is another discussion. The expression "a tale told by an idiot" might lead faculty members to think of some student presentations they have heard; And, I suppose, it would also be fair to say that some students might remember certain faculty lectures that bore remarkable resemblance to that description.
Whatever else the passage brings to mind, certainly we can agree it asserts at least one thing. Life is brief- and nobody gets out of it alive. Consider now our text for today. The words of the Preacher constitute a difficult passage to interpret. Whether these verses are literal descriptions of a funeral scene, symbols of eschatological doom, or metaphors that describe, figuratively, the slowing down of youthful vigor and the eventual cessation of life- the overall impact is stunning. The finality and absurdity of life ending in death is unveiled in verses 7 and 8. The overall effect of the passage is to bring to mind the inevitable process of decay, the certainty of death.
Reading this passage, another image comes to mind: the image of a runner in a race. Or perhaps more appropriately, the story of the two hunters who were set upon by a bear. As the bear stood and roared, one pulled off his boots, grabbed his sneakers, and quickly laced them up. His friend said, "Whats wrong with you. You cant outrun the bear!" "Dont have to," the first hunter replied, "just have to outrun you." What the preacher tells us is that you cant outrun death. It is the predator. Death is your appointed end and it will catch up with you .
Everyone comes into this life running from the bear. For a while, you are able to pick up speed and, seemingly, gain an advantage. In the full power of youth we all have the perception that we have left the predator far, far behind. But, as the twenties give way to the thirties; the thirties to the forties, and the forties to the fifties, we look back and realize that the distance that separates us is shrinking. And, most alarming of all, the older we get, the faster that distance seems to shrink. And then comes the awareness that your life is but a vapor, it appears for a little time and then vanishes away. What a bummer! Wouldnt do to spend too much time thinking about that stuff- wed all be on Prozac. Now a classroom full of folks on Prozac is an intriguing thought, but it doesnt solve our problem. To spend all our time thinking about death would make us morbid and depressed- not likely that we would be effectual instruments for the advancement of Gods kingdom
However, in the midst of the pessimism of the Preacher, he reminds us to remember our Creator in our youth, before the inevitable decline of aging and the finality of death occurs. God uses aging and death to remind us that our lives truly are absurd- at least on one level. And it is at this point that the existentialists have approximated biblical truth- unintentionally, of course. Where they miss out is in their emphasis on absurdity for its own sake- the ontological primacy of absurdity. You see, the Christian tradition says this is not the way it ought to be. The creation of man and woman in a world fitted for their service to God was all very good. Estrangement and absurdity are not a concomitant to humanity, but are the results of sin and the fall. And yet, even in the sentence of death, God provided a promise of life, Genesis 3:15. Even in the expulsion from the garden and alienation from the Creator- God the Redeemer was working a plan to restore his people to union and communion.
Today is a day to remember your Creator, the promise of life in covenant with him- and the futility of life without him. It is a day to ponder our end- to see that "all share a common destiny- the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not" as the Preacher tells us.
The way to dusty death is the way of all flesh for "it is appointed to man once to die, and after that the judgment." As someone has said, after a Christmas, you need a Lent. We cannot remain on the mountaintop, rejoicing in the incarnation. We must come down and reflect on the significance of Christs call to us. We must hear his call for conversion- for repentance and faith. And so we think of our sin, our need, our mortality.
But the call to think on these things is not a call to indulge some personality disorder. Instead we are called to see that death is the pathway to life. "Dont you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." For the follower of Christ, the way to dusty death still takes us through the valley of the shadow of death. But even then, the promise remains sure, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies."
This Ash Wednesday, we mark ourselves as creatures of the dust, as those for whom death is a reality- as it is for all men and women. But we also mark ourselves as creatures for whom death has lost its sting. It is good that we reflect on our mortality. It is even better that we rely upon the mercy of the one who alone is able to say, "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever. And I hold the keys of Death and Hell."
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Christians have always honored with great devotion the days of our Lords passion and resurrection. It became the custom of the church to prepare for Easter by a season of penitence, fasting, and prayer. This season of forty day provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for baptism into the body of Christ. It is also the time when persons who had committed serious sins and had been separated from the community of faith were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the church. The whole congregation is thus reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our baptismal faith.
I invite you in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; and by reading and meditation on the Word of God. For all who will, I invite you to receive the ashen cross as the sign of your mortality and the renewal of your union and communion with Jesus Christ. For some of you, this may be new and strange. If your conscience is such that you are not able to participate actively in receiving the sign, then I urge you simply to remain in your seat and inwardly renew your fellowship with the Lord.
Let us give thanks over the ashes.
Erskine Theological Seminary, Ash Wednesday, 1998