Underneath the Ashes

This Ash Wednesday sermon was preached by Gettysburg Seminary President Michael Cooper-White in the Church of the Abiding Presence on the seminary campus on March 9, 2011.

In the introductory homiletics course in my student generation here, Herman Stuempfle taught that authentic Christian proclamation occurs at the intersection where the Word, a group of people or congregation, and the mcw-dc.jpgpreacher’s own life overlap. He sounded that same pedagogical theme in his book, Preaching Law and Gospel, which remains a recommended reference on many preaching course syllabi. Though the man has now been gone from us for several years, Herm’s proclamation lives on, most especially through his hymns, one of which we will sing as our Hymn of the Day. 

Ash Wednesday, in my opinion and experience, is the most perilous homiletical occasion ever faced by any preacher. There is never a more important time for a preacher to examine closely his or her own perspectives and visceral gut-feelings about the most profound issues of life. How do I feel when that grainy, dry, ashy smudge is imposed on my forehead, and I hear that stark, somber, bone-chilling reminder: “Remember, oh man, oh woman, you are dust, and to dust you shall return”?

In her compelling sermon a week ago, Dr. Largen offered us comfort in her reminder of Jesus’ counsel against being overwhelmed by anxiety. But who among us, unless he or she exist in a state of delusion or dementia, does not feel that gut-wrenching flinch when a brother or sister literally gets in our face and tells the unvarnished truth we mostly manage to avoid: "You, my friend, my classmate, my student, my professor—YOU, someday soon or years down the road, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE AND RETURN TO THE DUST OF THE EARTH! You who now stand before me in such vibrancy and vigor, you someday will cease to exist as a living, breathing human being. There will come a final moment, after a final round of kisses and loving touches by your loved ones, in which the coffin lid will be lowered. And the sun of morning will not again shine upon your face; spring’s gentle rains will never again fall upon your shoulders.” It will be, for us all, it will be, it will be simply over and done.

Even more important than approaching the Ash Wednesday pulpit moment with a solid grasp upon one’s own feelings about mortality is pondering long and hard the manifold realities borne by the people who will hear your words, swallow hard and approach the ash-imposing moment—some with fascination, most with sheer terror. In every congregation, whatever its size and makeup, the Ash Wednesday words will strike terror and unleash either raw and recent or long-repressed feelings of the most profound and powerful kind. 

Now coming down the aisle is dear sweet Jane in her 9th decade, whose beloved life companion of 60+ years was buried last November when everything else around her was dying too.   After too many nights in which she sobs herself into a fitful sleep in her assisted living apartment, Jane needs no reminder of her own mortality. Even so, you will get in her face with your forefinger or thumb and declare that before too long she will lie beside beloved husband Bob outside town in the local cemetery.

Ah, here comes Philip, who wears long-sleeved shirts on even the hottest summer afternoons. You, his pastor, know the reason why—his arms badly burned in a Viet Nam rice paddy; his heart seared forever 40 years ago by the haunting memories of watching his best buddies reduced to smoldering ash heaps by the bombs later discovered to have been dropped by so-called “friendly fire.” 

Out there in the crowd (will she come forward or not?) you spy the tear-filled eyes of Victoria, who came trembling to your study door a few nights ago upon seeing your desk lamp as you worked late into the evening hours. With more anguish than you imagined one human heart could hold, she blurted out that her husband of two decades had told her the marriage was over; his heart had been captured by a dashing young coworker. 

Oh, and there’s the chair of the church council, so professional and organized as he leads a meeting.  And you know that for him the Ash Wednesday ashes are a haunting reminder of his beloved sister who rode one of the speeding silver tubes with wings that slammed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. His only link to his only sister—his best friend in the world despite their childhood spats with each other—sits atop his desk in the corner office: a small jar of ashes collected when the family was ushered quietly down into the pit at Ground Zero.

On Ash Wednesday, an awesome and unbearable burden falls upon any preacher as she or he gazes out upon those who on the surface seem eager to hear, but inside are crying out: “No more, padre or madre! Say no more about ashes. They surround us on every side. Death is already in our face; we need no further reminder that we and all we love, and this very earth itself someday somehow will cease to exist.” 

If you follow the rite recommended by our worship book, and taught here in worship class and modeled in this chapel, you should do so at your own and others’ peril. Taking up that little dish or other receptacle filled with ashes can be as perilous and destructive as taking up a fully loaded submachine gun and opening fire in a crowded shopping mall or overflowing football stadium.

 I think that Ash Wednesday is the one day in the church year when a big sign should be hung at the entrance to every pulpit in the land, bearing the first maxim of the Hippocratic oath: DO NO HARM! This is no day for those who think they are called to ministry because they like to play church, be adored and absorb the applause. No child’s play can be allowed—it’s just too dangerous. It’s no day for amateurs to bumble about in the pulpit mouthing pious platitudes about our being cocoons that will soon become butterflies. If you are not willing to descend into the depths of the hell-on-earth in which many, finally all, your hearers wallow as the Ash Wednesday reality descends upon them, then just stay away. Cancel the service, or call upon someone else to preside.  

In the end, of course, we should all flee from this somber service, in which there seems to reside not one single shred of good news. Unless, unless and until, that is, until we remember the third circle that intersects with the hope-less human cycles we endure as preacher and people.   In that third circle, which Brother Herman taught us forces itself into our consciousness, resides and dwells and sounds forth the Word of God. The text—always the text! In this case, the second text from Second Corinthians:

Brothers and sisters: We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Ambassadors! An ambassador never speaks for her/himself, but always relays a message on behalf of the president, queen or other supreme leader. So we do not speak for ourselves on this day, but relay the message of the President of the Universe. And the message is to “be reconciled”—passive imperative verb. We do not earn or gain reconciliation by keeping the historic Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, serving and giving to the poor. We are simply invited to let God’s reconciling power wash over us.

And did you catch the final phrases here? “God made Jesus to be sin.” God stood there at the head of the aisle, pointed the divine finger, “You, yes you, Jesus, my beloved, my treasured—you the one who in your own essence never sinned, never harmed and hurt others, never crossed a boundary, never fudged on the truth—you, get on up now; come down the aisle with the others.” And then God almighty, creator of the universe, dipped finger or thumb into the ashtray of history and smudged cross-sign on Jesus’ pure, unadulterated and undefiled face.


And then, I can imagine, God held onto the One who had just received his ash-smudge and final death sentence. And God followed the first stark somber phrase with a second: “Yes, you are dust, but remember, remember beloved Child of mine, behind the mark of the ash-cross lies another. Behind the ash-cross is the Chrism-cross. Behind and beyond, before and in the end, underneath the ashes lies the baptism.  And so the ashes will not have the final say.”

I think that our only hope of doing no harm on Ash Wednesday, of pointing those entrusted into our care down a road of hope rather than despair, depends totally on reminding those who look up at pulpits with both unimaginable terror and unbelievable yearning of God’s total and complete act of solidarity for and with us. God threw the beloved Jesus onto the ash heap of history; ultimately allowed him to be taken to the dump ground, Golgotha place of his cruel death so that, so that in the end the baptismal mark shines through the darkened smudge of our mortality.

Perhaps we here at this small school in this tiny town might just start a movement to alter a sacred liturgical text passed along by generation after generation. That global liturgical revolution would be the simple addition of two or three words, or another short phrase, at the conclusion of the haunting imposition sentence:

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return—into Jesus.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return—into your baptism.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return—into the eternal larger life of God. 


Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return; but remember more importantly that behind and beyond and underneath the ashes is the indelible, inerasable, infinite and eternal power and presence of the One Holy Triune God.

Posted: 3/10/2011 10:04:41 AM by John Spangler | with 0 comments

Sermons, devotional thoughts, and poetic and prosaic offerings heard and offered up in the Seminary Chapel life including some offered off campus by seminary voices.

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