This is the text from the homily I wrote for the imposition of ashes service tonight at the Church of the Epiphany and St. Mark in Parkdale.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you must return. These words are our ritual they are our words and we say them each year on this day as we draw the mark of our faith on our faces in the dust from the year before. They reveal the cyclical nature of our faith not only in jesus as Christians but also in our way of believing as anglicans. The Mark on our faces serves as a reminder of where we have been and And what is still to come. Its a day where we face foreword and backward at the same time…more on that in a moment. But first a note from TS Eliot The phrase “In my beginning is my end” from the beginning of the poem East Coker, Its a phrase that is at once paradoxical how can the end of something also exist in its beginning? In some ways tonights church service is the start of the church year and the end of the church year its a ritual of creation and death all together in one liturgical movement.
Ash Wednesday is an odd day in the church year. its a day that marks the beginning of the season of lent a great facing foreword to the resurrection and yet at the same time a sombre reflection on everything thats already happened up till now. Its difficult not to get caught up in the cyclical nature of it, the way we sort of speed through our story and arrive back at this place once again. We complete the cycle like a giant cosmic circle, the words from TS eliot’s four quartets guiding us ever onward – in my beginning is my end. We face the future which is also the past somehow looking in two directions at the same time. The ritual that we have come today to participate in: the imposition of ashes – puts the past on our faces as a mark of our faith, made of another mark from a year ago on palm Sunday. Now either this is just an extremely clever initiative from the green team or this is the ritual of cycle. We confirm our belief in god wearing the past and yet most determinetly facing the future.
This metaphor of cycle is carried through our year through the darkness of lent and the celebration of easter we continue as we always have: to recognize and celebrate the life of Jesus at work in all of us. Through Pentacost and Advent the cycle continues until throughly stuffed with the shrove Tuesday pancakes we arrive back at Ash Wednesday facing the past and at the same time confronting our future.
The Prophet Joel along with our appointed gospel for today both offer refelections on what is to come. Joel sees darkness and the imposition of a large scary army that will rise like a great light over the mountains almost like the rising sun completing a 24 hour orbital cycle of its own, while Matthew’s Gospel offers instructions on pennace and prayer the pathway to kingdom of god. Both Matthew and Joel offer visions of what is to come facing the past but at the same time facing the coming of the kingdom, in Matthews case the treasures of heaven and in Joel’s the certainty of death.
Death too plays an interesting role in todays service giving us something to confront in lent as christ confronts his own death in sacrifice. The ashes themselves are black as the coming darkness from Joel’s Prophecy. The ashes are the dust from our prayer they are the dust from which god made us and they are the dust to which we shall return at the end of our lives. The same dust from which God shaped and created the universe. We begin and end in Ashes, In my beginning is my end. The ashes act as a way for us to remember others who have returned to dust and at the same time acknowledge that we are all headed in that direction as well. Remember that you are dust and to dust you must return.
The idea of cycle is one that is clear in all of our practices as christians tonight when we place the ashes of last year’s palms on our faces we can contemplate the coming of the kingdom and of the year to come we also recognize that this is process we will repeat continuously for the rest of our lives. TS Eliot’s fixation with circles ends his cycle of poetry as well with these words
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We begin as the universe began as dust that god shaped into existance and after our death we return to the dust from which we were created: another perfect cycle
Eliots own end to arrive after all the cycles of the christian year, of the solar seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, Birth, Life, Death and Ressurection, to arrive literally at the end of all our exploring in the same place where all things began and to know the place for the first time.