That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Redemption

“Thou hast raised our human nature…”

A Sermon Preached on the Feast of the Ascension, May 5, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus: crucified, risen, and ascended on high to reign. Amen.

Jesus was born. Jesus was crucified. Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus ascended into heaven.

If we approach the Nicene Creed with the question, “What did Jesus do?”, that is what we will find for our answer. The Creed tells us nothing of the teaching of Jesus, nothing of the healings of Jesus, nothing of the preaching of Jesus, nothing of the praying of Jesus, nothing of the miracles of Jesus. The Creed tells us, simply, that he was born, that he died, that he rose from the grave, and that he ascended.

Of those four events–birth, death, resurrection, ascension–it is an undeniable fact that the last one receives the least attention. As wonderful as it is to worship with you all tonight, we must admit that the crowds on Christmas Eve were slightly larger.

And yet from the perspective of our forefathers in the faith–those folks who composed the Nicene Creed–this day, Ascension Day, is on par with Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Regardless of the fact that most people–even most Christians–don’t realize it, the Church ranks this day as a principal feast–one of the chief celebrations in the liturgical year.

Why? What’s so important about the ascension of Jesus? Why does it matter? What does it mean?

Perhaps we should begin by saying clearly what the ascension is not. The ascension is not about Jesus shooting up into the sky like a bottle rocket. A surprising number of people seem to have this dismissive, slightly embarrassed understanding of the ascension. That may be due to the tradition, in artwork, of depicting just the ascended Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds. Our own lovely ascension window gives us a good example of that.

The trouble with this view of the ascension is that it seems to rest on an outdated understanding of the universe. It sort of pictures the cosmos like a house with a first floor, a second floor, and a basement. If earth is the first floor, then hell is the basement below us and heaven is the second floor over our heads.

But this day is not about Jesus climbing the stairs to the great master bedroom suite in the sky. This isn’t about him flying away up over our heads. Rather, when our Creeds say that “he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” we mean that Jesus has gone into the nearer presence of God. Jesus who came from the bosom of the Father now returns to the bosom of the Father.

Heaven, in this view, doesn’t just mean “up in the sky.” Heaven means that place where God’s power, God’s presence, and God’s purposes are experienced without corruption or interruption. “For now we see in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face. Now we know only in part: then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.”

Jesus returns to the nearer presence of God. The Son who was never separated from his Father–even in that moment on the Cross when he felt forsaken by his Father–now goes to take his seat at the right hand of his Father. The ascension is the completion of the work that he came to do.

The Creed tells us that it was “for us and for our salvation” that God the Son came down from heaven, and “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Just as he was born for us and for our salvation, and he died for us and for our salvation, and he rose for us and for our salvation, now he ascends for us and for our salvation.

The ascension is the completion of this great work. And it may well be the most astonishing and most glorious part of this great work. For when Jesus ascends, he does not do so empty-handed. When Jesus returns to the Father, he takes something with him. When Jesus goes to sit at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, he carries back with him a prize.

That prize, beloved, is you and I. When Jesus ascends to the Father, he does so in the same incarnate body that was born, and died, and was raised from the dead. When Jesus ascends, he lifts human nature into the very life of God. When Jesus ascends, he raises our humanity, not simply to the same place of innocence and purity lost to us in the fall. When Jesus ascends, he exalts our nature to heights beyond what we could have asked or imagined. Jesus lifts us to God.

It is a hand like my hand that pushes upon the gates of heaven. They are feet like your feet that now tread the paths of angels. Lips like these lips now plead mercy for sinners. Eyes like these eyes now behold the face of God.

That is the greater glory of this day. And that glory should give us pause. That glory, frankly, should terrify us. For as soon as I consider that Jesus has lifted human nature into the life of God, I realize with trembling just how thoroughly unworthy my nature is.

I recall each time that this hand has been used to grasp and clench and claim for my own selfish ends. I remember each time that these feet have carried me away from the suffering of others. I hear in my memory every bitter word and foul curse that has been uttered by these lips. I see again every unworthy image that has darkened these eyes.

Knowing the sorry state of my own human nature–and seeing written across the front page of every newspaper, every facebook page, every family history, and every national narrative the sorry state of all human nature–I shrink from the thought that that our incarnate Lord should have lifted us to God.

But in my dismal despair, I lift my eyes again to the feet of Jesus disappearing into the clouds in our ascension window–and I see there the prints of the nails! I recall the words of Jesus spoken in our Gospel lesson tonight. I hear again the assurance “that the Messiah [was] to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” I remember that the ascended body of Jesus still bears in his hands and feet and side and head the wounds that have made us whole. I realize once more that the Christ who has lifted our nature on high has also borne my sin and your sin in his body upon the Cross, and that he has broken the power of death forever, and that he has not left us comfortless, but has clothed his Church with power from on high!

When I glimpse again, in this holy feast, the ascension of the crucified and risen body of Jesus, I know that my great high priest–a high priest who has suffered with me and for me–now stands on my behalf in the nearer presence of our holy God.

And where he is, so we also shall be. “For this Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same was as you saw him go into heaven.” In Christ’s ascension, we see the sure and certain promise of our own. AMEN.

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Tetelestai!

Annunciation-Crucifixion

(Saint John the Baptists, Annunciation, Crucifixion, Saint Catherine of Alexandria,               Francesc Comes, circa 1400)

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, March 25, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:1-25; John 18:1-19:42

May I speak in the Name of Christ Crucified. Amen.

“It is finished.”

Those are the dying words of Jesus.

“It is finished.”

Those words are the key to understanding the meaning of this day.

“It is finished.”

Those words make absolutely no sense in the context of the story we have just heard.

Of course, if all Jesus meant was, “This is done with,” or “This is over,” then we might think that “It is finished” makes perfect sense. And after everything Jesus has been through, who could blame him if what he meant by “It is finished,” was really, “I’ve had enough,” or “I can’t take any more,” or even, “I give up”? Any of those might make sense to us.

But that’s not what Jesus said.

When Christ declares, “It is finished,” he isn’t saying anything like, “This is done with,” or “I give up.” The phrase “It is finished” in the English of our Bibles translates a single word from the original Greek of John’s Gospel: Tetelestai. That word doesn’t carry with it any hint of giving up or quitting or throwing in the towel.

Rather, when Jesus says, “Tetelestai,” and bows his head and gives up his spirit, what he is really saying from the Cross is “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. It is completed.”

Tetelestai!“​

Jesus isn’t saying, “I give up.” Jesus is saying, “I have done it.”1

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

Those are the last words of an innocent man who refused the violent rescue-attempt proposed by his friends in the garden; refused to answer the false accusations brought against him; refused to plead his case before the governor who could release him; refused to accept the offer of crude anesthetics meant to dull his pain; and refused to come down from the Cross with divine power and might to answer the cruel jeers of the spiteful crowd.

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” Those are the dying words of a broken man whose body has been whipped and scourged; whose clothes have been stripped away and gambled off; whose friends have deserted him; whose mother stands weeping for him; whose epitaph, nailed above him while he’s still alive, is a mocking political joke: “This is the King of the Jews!”

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” This is the last utterance of a faithful man who came to earth that others might have life, and have it more abundantly; of a man who healed the sick and raised the dead; of a man who fed the multitude with a few loaves and a couple of fish; of a man who opened the eyes of the blind and who shut the mouths of the learned; of a man who called God his Father, and tax collectors and sinful women and stupid fishermen his friends; a man who, before this death of agony, asked God to glorify his name, and who heard the voice of God declare in reply, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Here, hanging upon the Cross of shame, this man declares with his dying breath, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

It doesn’t make any sense. Crucifixion was meant to be an utterly meaningless death. The whole point is that it was pointless. The cross was a tool used for erasing the record of a person’s existence. It was a way, not simply to kill a man, but to wipe him from the rolls of the human race.

How can this death be a fulfillment of anything? How can this death accomplish anything? How can this death be anything but an absolute, unmitigated, irredeemable failure?

Unless, of course, dying a death like this is precisely what Jesus came to do.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring and prolong his days.”

“And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

“See, God, I have come to do your will.”

What if the crucifixion were not a hateful, horrible interruption of Christ’s life and ministry? What if the crucifixion were his very reason for being born, and the full completion of his three years’ work?

There’s something special about this Good Friday. Something happens this year that will not happen again until the year 2157. Today is March 25. We are exactly nine months from Christmas Day. Were it not Good Friday, the Church would celebrate this day as the Feast of the Annunciation: the moment of the Incarnation.

This is the day when the Angel Gabriel brought word to a lowly Jewish peasant girl that she would become the mother of the Messiah. This is the day when the Word of God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary his mother. This is the day when God came among us as one of us–and this is the day that he died.

This rare coming together of Good Friday and the Annunciation happens only a few times or so every century. It happened during the lifetime of the poet and priest John Donne. Reflecting on this convergence in 1608, Donne wrote that “This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown / Death and conception in mankind is one.”2

“Death and conception in mankind is one.” From the moment we begin to exist, we are vulnerable to death. This is the sad truth of the human condition. No matter how wise we make ourselves; no matter how wealthy we become; no matter how advanced our technological achievements or vast our information networks; no matter how high we build our walls to keep the enemies out or how deep we dig our vaults to hide away our treasures, we cannot escape death.

That’s the terrible message we read in the silent spread of terrorist networks through the free democracies of the world. That’s the toxic background to the fear-mongering and scapegoating that increasingly characterize our nation’s political life. That’s the source of the brokenness we find in our corrupted institutions and our ineffective systems and our ruined relationships and our endless empty consuming.

And it’s the condition we find at work in our own lives. To be human is to be caught up into the swirling dance of Death and Sin. It is to be dominated by powers beyond our control. It is to be scourged by the whip of our own weaknesses, and to be mocked with the taunts we hurled at others. To be human is to find ourselves hanging upon the Cross of our own hatreds–pierced by the nails of our own pride–stabbed by the spear of our own selfishness. To be human is to wear the thorny crown of our own control–the bloody crown that shows our rejection of God’s will in our lives and our slavery to our own desires and appetites. “Death and conception in mankind is one.”

This day cruelly confronts us with that dark truth.

But in Christ’s declaration of “Tetelestai!”, this day also dares to declare to us another, better truth. For what this “some times and seldom” overlap announces is that the God of all creation has come to pursue us–and he would not stop with simply taking on our nature. His intention was to become fully, completely human, and because “Death and conception in mankind is one”, today we remember that he has pursued us even unto death!

Christ’s purpose was not simply to become a perfect human being aloof and separate from the sins and sorrows and sufferings of our race. But what he begins at the Annunciation when he takes on flesh like ours, he completes in the Crucifixion when he suffers a death like ours.

For the death of agony that Jesus endures on the Cross means that no human agony is now beyond his reach. The death of shame that Christ completes this day means that no shame can now separate us from him. The accursed, ugly, horrible death he died means that God himself has absorbed our curse; God himself has exchanged our ugliness; God himself has faced the horror of death and made it his own.

“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

For what was ours by nature, God took upon himself by grace. What we have deserved for our deeds, Christ has assumed out of his love. What was for us only dissolution and disaster, Jesus has made an achievement and the occasion of our reunion with God. What to us could only be the penalty for disobedience, Christ has redeemed by his perfect obedience.

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

And let us, this Good Friday, fix our eyes upon the rough wood of the Cross and say, in unison with our crucified, living Lord, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. Christ has done it!”

AMEN.

1-I realize that “I have done it,” is not an accurate translation of tetelestai. However, I maintain that it is a theologically and homiletically appropriate rendering.

2-Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

“He ascended into heaven…”

A Sermon Preached on the Eve of the Ascension, May 13, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus crucified, risen, and ascended on high to reign. Amen.

The Feast of the Ascension tends to get short shrift these days. It doesn’t help that Ascension Day is precisely forty days after Easter Sunday, and therefore always on a Thursday. (Which is why our service tonight is technically a service for Ascension Eve.)

But it’s not just the timing that causes modern Christians to overlook or downplay the celebration of the Ascension. The event itself can make us a little uncomfortable. After all, the Ascension seems to assume a universe in which hell is somewhere below our feet, earth is the world we know, and God in heaven is somewhere up above our heads. The Ascension can seem embarrassingly crude and simpleminded to many modern believers. We who live in the wake of moon landings and the Hubble Telescope cannot be expected to think that Jesus shot up into the stratosphere like a rocket.

So what, then, is this day all about? What do we gather to celebrate this afternoon? What do we mean when we say in our creeds, “He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”?

Before all else, we must put to bed the notion that when Scripture talks about heaven all it really means is sky or outer space. Ancient people were not as unsophisticated as we sometimes patronizingly assume that they were. Yes, practically speaking, “the heavens” was a poetic phrase sometimes used to describe the atmosphere and beyond. But when Jesus announced in his earthly ministry that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”, no one thought he meant that stars and clouds were coming down to wear crowns and live in palaces. Theologically, the idea of heaven meant—and means—so much more than simply sky.

Heaven is that realm—that place—that state of being in which God’s glory and God’s power are experienced unalloyed and undiminished. It is something beyond all created order, whether that be the created order we see here on earth or the created order we discover in outer space. Heaven is where God is, and where God reveals himself to be.

This understanding of heaven explains why, throughout Scripture and church history, there have been moments when heaven breaks out on earth—and these have nothing to do with the sky falling and everything to do with God revealing himself more clearly.

Think of Moses hiding in the cleft of the rock as God’s glory passed him by. Think of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Think of St Paul’s vision on the Damascus Road, or St John the Divine’s Revelation on the Isle of Patmos.

Think of the lives of all the saints—those heroes of the faith who seem to dwell in heaven even as their feet still trod “this terrestrial ball.”

Think of moments in your own life when you have felt the presence of God in a better and truer way than ever before–whether that was through a glorious worship service or an astonishing sunrise—through a friend’s deed of surpassing love or a stranger’s quiet act of kindness–in a grand moment of revelation, or in the assurance of a still, small voice.

Heaven is not some place up above our heads. It is the truer reality, the deeper reality, the holier reality which flows unceasingly from the very presence of God and flashes out even now upon the face of the earth.

And it is this to which the Risen Jesus ascends. Jesus the Son of God who dwells eternally in the love of his Father—Jesus the Word of God who became human flesh and dwelt among us—Jesus the Anointed One of God who redeems and consecrates for himself a holy people—Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—this Jesus goes back to the bosom of his father. He returns to the nearer presence of God from whence he came. He ascends into heaven and sits down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

And he does it without setting aside or discarding the human body he has assumed. This, beloved, is the part of the Ascension that ought to make us a little uncomfortable. For tonight we profess our faith that having humbled himself to partake of our nature, of our bodies, of our flesh and bone, of our physicality, and our fallenness, Jesus does not abandon those things at the completion of his mission. He lifts our redeemed nature to assume the throne that God has prepared for it. He transforms human bodies from things of weakness and frailty—bodies of corruption, as St Paul calls them—into signs of God’s power and purpose. He restores the goodness of this physical universe declared and accomplished by God in creation, and on his hands and head and feet and side, his risen, ascended body bears the wounds that show his victory over our fallenness. All of this Jesus at his Ascension brings into the nearer presence of God, where the very Angels receive it with joy and holy awe.

This ought to make us a little uncomfortable because it lifts our nature higher than we might ever have dared to hope. This ought to make us a little uncomfortable because it affirms that we are creatures destined to share in the uncreated, eternal life of God the Holy Trinity. This ought to make us uncomfortable, for it transforms our every interaction with other human beings into an expression of the living will of our living Lord now reigning over the cosmos.

All of this ought to make us just a little uncomfortable, a little trepidatious, a little overwhelmed, because at his ascension into heaven, Jesus makes clear that it is in and through us that he intends to reveal heaven here on earth. We are the ones upon whom has been poured out his power from on high. We are the ones who share in the renewed nature which has now been exalted above all things. We are the ones whom he has sent forth to be his witnesses even to the ends of the earth.

But in little more than a week’s time, Pentecost will remind us that we are also the recipients of his promise. In his bodily absence, we have not been left comfortless, for by his Holy Spirit he now lives in us. We are the heirs of his hope. To us have been spoken his good and gracious words, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

In his ascension, we glimpse our own.

“Lord, beyond our mortal sight, raise our hearts to reach thy height: there thy face unclouded see, find our heaven of heavens in thee.”

AMEN.

Dust Thou Art

As we come to the beginning of another Lent, I share the sermon I preached last Ash Wednesday.

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

by The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Genesis 3; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6; Revelation 22:1-4

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Those strange and solemn words are at the heart of this strange and solemn day. They are the words that you will hear in a more contemporary form when you come forward to receive the mark of ashes as a sign of penitence. In that moment, the dust will be physical, literal—the gritty symbol of real ashes smudged on fingers and faces—but the force of those words will connect them to our need for repentance, and our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

But where do those strange and solemn words come from? If you look back over the readings in your bulletin, you will not find them there. The prophet Joel is not interested in ashes—in the outward signs of repentance—as he calls the people of Israel to “rend [their] hearts and not [their] garments.” Our Lord Jesus is not thinking of smudged foreheads as he urges his disciples, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face”—indeed, he seems to challenge, if not expressly to forbid, practices such as these

No, to find the source of today’s reminder that “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” we must go back beyond today’s appointed lessons—back beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, and back beyond the prophetic pronouncements of Joel. We must go back to the beginning: to the Book of Genesis.

In Genesis, we are told of how God created the heavens and the earth. We are told of how the Spirit of God moved mightily over the face of the waters, and how, out of chaos and darkness, God brought order and light. In Genesis, we are told of God’s great goodness in calling forth the bounty and rich diversity of this earth: plants and animals, fish and birds, the beasts of the earth and the cattle of the fields and “every creeping thing that creepeth upon” the ground.

In Genesis, we are told of how God in his mercy and in his love made human beings in his image—formed out of the dust of the earth and enlivened with the breath of his Spirit. We are told of how he set them over the good earth that he had made, to tend and keep it, in order that we might rule and serve all creatures. In Genesis, we are told that God set the first humans in a garden full of good fruit growing on abundant trees.

And one more thing. In Genesis, we are told of a single command that the Lord gave to the first people—the dust creatures made in the image of God: “Of every tree in the garden, thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”

Of course, we know what happens next. The serpent seduces. The people eat. And God comes to walk through the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, only to find Adam and Eve hiding—ashamed of their nakedness. The relationship of trust and intimacy that the first people enjoyed with the Lord their God was broken by disobedience—by sin.

And so it is, at last, that in the Third Chapter of the Book of Genesis, we find the strange and solemn words for which we have been searching—the dread words that we will hear again in just a few moments this evening. The Lord pronounces judgment: first upon the serpent, then upon the woman, and then at last on Adam, the first man. God declares: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it thou wast taken. For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

This, then, is the source of tonight’s strange pronouncement. Here, then, is the meaning of this day’s solemn declaration. The startling and unsettling truth proclaimed in the imposition of ashes today is that you and I stand in the line of Adam. Over us is spoken the same condemnation, the same curse. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Now perhaps this is too much for you. Perhaps here you might raise an objection. Perhaps, as modern Americans in Greenwich, Connecticut in 2014, you chafe against so simple an application of so ancient a story. Talking serpents? First parents? A divine curse? Can you imagine a more preposterous explanation of human origins?

But let us be very clear this Ash Wednesday. The story you have just heard—and the curse at the heart of that story—is not meant to explain the past. The truth of this tale cannot be confirmed by an archaeological dig or a mitochondrial DNA analysis. The story of Adam and Eve is not a story about where we come from, explaining our background. Instead, this is a story about where we are, and it explains where we are headed. This is not a story about the past, but about the present and the future. For the truth is that the fruits of Eden’s loss still fall, heavy and rotten, all around us.

We see them falling in the Crimea, as the great powers of the world once again find themselves drawn into the tired, terrible dance of war. To be sure, this day we hope and pray that peace will yet prevail. But we must also acknowledge that each time nations collide and tyranny rises and blood is spilt, the fruits of Adam’s fall can be seen, and the ancient curse can be heard again in our time: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We see those fruits falling in Mexico, where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman now sits in federal custody. The arrest of perhaps the world’s most powerful drug lord late last month has been major news, supplanted only by the crisis in the Ukraine. Guzman rules over a multi-billion dollar cartel. His actions and activities have brought misery and pain to the streets and suburbs of America, even as he has brought violent death to the towns and cities of Mexico. Yet we must not forget that his enormous wealth is built upon the enormous American appetite for his products—cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroine—and therefore, by the enslaving power of addiction. Here, surely, around one life we see the fatal fruit fall abundantly, and hear the curse spoken to so many of the innocent and guilty alike: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

And lest we forget the purpose of this season of Lent, if we would see the truth of this day’s pronouncement—if we would see the fruit of Adam’s fall—let us look within ourselves. You and I may not be as brash as Vladimir Putin or as ruthless as “El Chapo” Guzman. But can you outrun the terrible words we hear this night? For all our advancement and enlightenment, for all our wealth and wisdom, for all our piety and our spiritual practices, who among us can claim a perfectly clean conscience, or the knowledge that we have not been disobedient?

We know what it is to exploit our fellow human beings in ways big and small. We know what it is to eat gluttonously, to drink intemperately, to look and act lustfully, to yearn enviously, to react wrathfully, to amass greedily, and to boast pridefully. And what is the price of all this? What is the cost of these actions? Is it not the same penalty paid by Adam: the loss of a relationship of intimacy and trust with the Lord our God, and with one another? For all our sophistication and satisfaction, for all our charity and our credentials, for all our goodness and our gratitude, who among us can escape death? “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

But let us make something very clear. Ash Wednesday is not, in fact, a day to sit in our sin; to wallow in the warped, worn-out weariness of our hearts; to fixate on death. Our worship this day does not end with the imposition of ashes. Our story this day does not conclude with the pronouncement of a curse.

For behold, Christian, the shape of the ashes that will soon bedeck your brow! The dust with which you are marked today is no mere smudge. Rather, the symbol of mortality applied to our foreheads this night will be made in the form of a Cross.

And that realization lifts us to the true and better meaning of this strange and solemn day. For what that sign of the Cross shows forth is that we have not been left alone in our fallenness and our mortality. What we remember this day is that the same God whose justice drove Eve out of Eden has come down from heaven to be born a son of Eve. The same God whose righteousness could not bear the disobedience of our father Adam took on our flesh—our flesh of earth and dust—to become for us a new Adam, a new creation: a new and better beginning for our race.

The sign we receive this Ash Wednesday reminds us, not only that we are dust, but that God himself has come to share in our dusty, deathward life. The purpose of this long season of Lent is not to fix our hearts on our fallenness, but to prepare us for the announcement that on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus our Lord has conquered Death and Sin forever, and in the bright light of the Resurrection he calls us to share in a new life that cannot end.

So it is that this evening (and only this evening in the whole cycle of the Church year) we come forward twice. The first time, we come forward to hear the dread reminder; to be told “Dust thou art”; to acknowledge and bewail the fact that the seeds of Adam’s fall have taken root in us and grown up and produced rank fruit in our souls.

But then, beloved, once we have been marked with the cross, and have made our confession, and have heard words of absolution, we will be called forward again. We will be called forward to hear, not a curse, but words of blessing and holy union. We will be called forward to taste, not the bitter fruit of fallenness, but a new and better fruit: the fruit of the new Jerusalem, the fruit of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Tonight, Christ Jesus invites all those who have shared in his death through baptism, and who repent of their sins, and who embark now on the holy road of Lent, to draw near in faith, and to see the fulfillment of words not from the first book—from Genesis—but from the last book—from Revelation—and to taste at this altar the fruit of the Tree of Life.

“And the angel showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the lamb. In the midst of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, there was the Tree of Life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.”

AMEN.

Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, CT

Texts: Genesis 3; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Revelation 22:1-4

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Those strange and solemn words are at the heart of this strange and solemn day. They are the words that you will hear in a more contemporary form when you come forward to receive the mark of ashes as a sign of penitence. In that moment, the dust will be physical, literal—the gritty symbol of real ashes smudged on fingers and faces—but the force of those words will connect them to our need for repentance, and our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

But where do these strange and solemn words come from? If you look back over the readings in your bulletin, you will not find them there. The prophet Joel is not interested in ashes—in the outward signs of repentance—as he calls the people of Israel to “rend [their] hearts and not [their] garments.” Our Lord Jesus is not thinking of smudged foreheads—indeed, he seems to challenge, if not expressly to forbid, practices such as these—as he urges his disciples, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.”

No, to find the source of today’s reminder that “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” we must go back beyond our appointed lessons—back beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ; back beyond the prophetic pronouncements of Joel. We must go back to the beginning, to the Book of Genesis.

In Genesis, we are told of how God created the heavens and the earth. We are told of how the Spirit of God moved mightily over the face of the waters, and how, out of chaos and darkness, God brought order and light. In Genesis, we are told of God’s great goodness in calling forth the bounty and rich diversity of this earth: plants and animals, fish and birds, the beasts of the earth and the cattle of the fields and “every creeping thing that creepeth upon” the ground.

In Genesis, we are told of how God in his mercy and in his love made human beings in his image—out of the dust of the earth and enlivened with the breath of his Spirit. We are told of how he set them over the good earth which he had made, to tend and keep it, in order that we might rule and serve all creatures. In Genesis, we are told that God set the first humans in a garden full of good fruit growing on abundant trees.

And one more thing. We are told of one command that the Lord gave to the first people—the dust creatures made in the image of God: “Of every tree in the garden, thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”

Of course, we know what happens next. The serpent seduces. The people eat. And God comes to walk through the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, only to find Adam and Eve hiding: ashamed of their nakedness. The relationship of trust and intimacy that the first people enjoyed with the Lord their God was broken.

And so it is, at last, that in the Third Chapter of the Book of Genesis, we find the strange and solemn words for which we have been searching: the dread words that we will hear again in just a few moments this evening. The Lord pronounces judgment, first upon the serpent, then upon the woman, and then at last on Adam, the first man, whose name in Hebrew means “earth.” God declares: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it thou wast taken. For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Here, beloved, is the source of this evening’s strange pronouncement. Here, then, is the meaning of this day’s solemn declaration. The startling and unsettling truth proclaimed in the imposition of ashes is that you and I stand in the line of Adam. Over us is spoken the same condemnation, the same curse. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Now perhaps this is too much for you. Perhaps here you might raise an objection. Perhaps, as modern Americans in Greenwich, Connecticut in 2014, you chafe against so simple an application of so ancient a story. Talking serpents? First parents? A divine curse? Can you imagine a more preposterous explanation of human origins?

But let us be very clear this Ash Wednesday. The story we have just heard—and the curse at the heart of that story—is not meant to explain the past. The truth of this tale cannot be confirmed by an archaeological dig or a mitochondrial analysis. The story of Adam and Eve is not a story about where we come from, explaining our background. This is a story about where we are, and it explains where we are headed. This is not a story about the past, but about the present and the future. For the truth is that the fruits of Eden’s loss still fall, heavy and rotten, all around us.

We see them falling in the Crimea, as the great powers of the world once again find themselves drawn into the tired, terrible dance of war. To be sure, this day we hope and pray that peace will yet prevail. But we must also acknowledge that each time nations collide and tyranny rises and blood is spilt, the fruits of Adam’s fall can be seen, and the ancient curse can be heard again in our time: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We see those fruits falling in Mexico, where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman now sits in federal custody. The arrest of perhaps the world’s most powerful drug lord late last month has been major news, supplanted only by the crisis in the Ukraine. Guzman rules over a multi-billion dollar cartel. His actions and activities have brought misery and pain to the streets and suburbs of America, even as he has brought violent death to the towns and cities of Mexico. Yet we must not forget that his enormous wealth is driven by the enormous American appetite for his products—cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroine—and therefore, by the enslaving power of addiction. Here, surely, around one life we see the fatal fruit fall abundantly, and hear the curse spoken to so many of the innocent and guilty alike: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

And lest we forget the purpose of this season of Lent, if we would see the truth of this day’s pronouncement—if we would see the fruit of Adam’s fall—let us look within ourselves. You and I may not be as brash as Vladimir Putin or as ruthless as “El Chapo” Guzman. But can you outrun the terrible words we hear this night? For all our advancement and enlightenment, for all our wealth and wisdom, for all our piety and our spiritual practices, who among us can claim a perfectly clean conscience, or the knowledge that we have not been disobedient?

We know what it is to exploit our fellow human beings in ways big and small. We know what it is to eat gluttonously, to drink intemperately, to look and act lustfully, to yearn enviously, to react wrathfully, to amass greedily, and to boast pridefully. And what is the price of all this? What is the cost of these actions? Is it not the same penalty paid by Adam: the loss of a relationship of intimacy and trust with the Lord our God, and with one another?

For all our sophistication and satisfaction, for all our charity and our credentials, for all our goodness and our gratitude, who among us can escape death? “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

And yet let us make something very clear. Ash Wednesday is not, in fact, a day to sit in our sin; to wallow in the warped, worn-out weariness of our hearts; to fixate on death. Our worship this day does not end with the imposition of ashes. Our story this day does not conclude with the pronouncement of a curse.

For behold, Christian, the shape of the ashes that will soon bedeck your brow! The dust with which you are marked today is no mere smudge. Instead, the symbol of mortality applied to our foreheads this night will be made in the form of a cross.

And that realization lifts us to the true and better meaning of this strange and solemn day. For what that sign of a cross shows forth is that we have not been left alone in our fallenness and our mortality. What we remember this day is that the same God whose justice drove Eve out of Eden has come down from heaven to be born a son of Eve. The same God whose righteousness could not bear the disobedience of our father Adam took on our flesh—our flesh of earth and dust—to become for us a new Adam, a new creation: a new and better beginning for our race.

The sign we receive this Ash Wednesday reminds us, not only that we are dust, but that God himself has come to share in our dusty, deathward life. The purpose of this long season of Lent is not to fix our hearts on our fallenness, but to prepare us for the announcement that on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus our Lord has conquered Death and Sin forever, and in the bright light of the Resurrection he calls us to share in a new life that cannot end.

So it is that this evening (and only this evening in the whole cycle of the Church year) we come forward twice. The first time, we come forward to hear the dread reminder; to be told “Dust thou art”; to acknowledge and bewail the fact that the seeds of Adam’s fall have taken root in us and grown up and produced rank fruit in our souls.

But then, beloved, once we have been marked with the cross and have made our confession, and have heard words of absolution, we will be called forward again. We will be called forward to hear, not a curse, but words of blessing and holy union. We will be called forward to taste, not the bitter fruit of fallenness, but a new and better fruit: the fruit of the new Jerusalem, the fruit of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Tonight, Christ Jesus invites all those who have shared in his death through baptism, and who repent of their sins, and who embark now on the holy road of Lent, to draw near in faith, and to see the fulfillment of words not from the first book—from Genesis—but from the last book—from Revelation—and to taste at this altar the fruit of the Tree of Life.

“And the angel showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the lamb. In the midst of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, there was the Tree of Life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

“And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.”

AMEN.