February 26, 2020 – Ash Wednesday
by Sara Wilhelm Garbers
“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘These are the appointed festivals of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my appointed festivals.’ Six days shall work, be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest. A Holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements. These are the appointed festivals of the Lord, the Holy convocations, which you shall celebrate at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the 14th day of the month at twilight, there shall be a Passover offering to the Lord, and on the 15th day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day, you shall have a Holy convocation. You shall not work at your occupations. For seven days, you shall present the Lord’s offerings by fire. On the seventh day, there shall be a Holy convocation. You shall not work at your occupations.”
Let’s pray together.
God, I thank you that on this night we get to gather together and together with you to turn our faces to Jerusalem that we might find life. It’s in your name that we gather, O Christ. Amen.
Well, earlier today I said to Jeff that this is probably not the most usual Ash Wednesday passage that is selected. If you’ve never been to an Ash Wednesday service where Leviticus 23 has been read, you probably number amongst the majority of the rest of the Christian Church, so welcome. Why Leviticus 23 as we begin this Lenten journey? I wanted to go here tonight because of the importance that is stated in this passage and the importance in our gathering, the importance of remembering. As human people, we so often forget.
Sometimes if you’re like me, you forget that you shouldn’t plan a church picnic on your anniversary. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes we forget to remember that we are loved, that grace is indeed not just for everyone else, but also for us. We forget the loves that sustain us and sometimes we forget ourselves. One of the beautiful things about God’s journey with God’s people, both in Israel up to today is that God’s grace is for us and it helps us remember.
Here in Leviticus 23 God’s people are invited to schedule their years and their days and their lives so that they indeed might be a people who remember. Tonight what I share with you is some wisdom that was gleaned from a conversation in one of our scripture circles gathering together around the text to hear the word of the Lord together. A few things stood out to me about remembering that I want to share tonight.
One of the first things that blew my mind, which I feel kind of silly admitting, is the recognition that the Jewish calendar that is named here is lunisolar solar. It’s rooted in a seven-day, 28-day cycle, which for some of my women out there, the 28 day cycles might sound familiar. Isn’t that cool? It’s in the Bible. The sense that we journey through these days and years of remembrance of seven days with rest and 28 days of rest for our bodies. That in this space, God made Sabbath for humans. One of the beautiful things I think about the remembrance of Sabbath is do you remember in Genesis when God created humans?
It was the last day of creation and then the next day God rested. Not just because
God was tired, but because I think it’s a reminder to us that we’re human and finite. We were born into the world already dependent upon God’s grace and God’s creation, not because of what we had done, but because of who God is as our source and so we’re invited to rest and remember we’re human and we are held by a loving God.
And here in Leviticus 23, we’re brought into the calendar year in the Jewish community. The year begins with the first month on the 14th day, the second week with Passover, and then moves into the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
A few details that I want to call to mind for us as we consider this passage.
First, of Passover itself — the Passover story is the reminder for the people of Israel, people who had been enslaved for 400 years, that God had heard their cries and intervened and saved them. The night of Passover, they put blood of the lamb on their thresholds and doorposts so that indeed they might be saved and their children, their young boys would not die. And they begin their year in this remembrance, both a remembrance that they had been enslaved and remembrance that God saved them. This is where they start their year and move then with God in that remembrance. When we look at the story of God’s people of Israel, we see that things go awry every time they forget, right? They go into the land and sometimes they become the oppressors because they forget that they were once enslaved and so every year God and God’s grace says, “We’re going to have another time, so you remember. Remember, it is for freedom in life that I have called you.”
In the celebration of Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread itself — this time begins with the search throughout the house for any leaven that is present. What observant Jews will do is they will gather any leaven and they will burn it, declaring any unfound chametz, as they call it, “The dust of the earth.” Any echoes you’re hearing?
They are to gather the leaven, to burn it for they do not have need of it for what will come in this festival. They instead are called to eat matzo, unleavened bread. They are reminded not only did they have unleavened bread because they were a people who sojourned, but also as a reminder that they were a people who had been enslaved. This was not a rich person’s bread. It was a bread that the common person would have eaten. And so, as they move into this time, they are called in the Passover Seder dinner to remember the Exodus, to remember the God who had freed them from slavery.
And over dinner, four questions are asked typically of the youngest children. They are great questions. The first is, “Why is this night different from other nights?” I ask us that question, why is this night different? What do we remember this night, friends? The second question is, “On all other nights we either eat unleavened or leaven bread, but tonight we only eat unleavened bread. Do you know why?” Tonight, we, my friends will make the signs of the cross on our foreheads with ashes. Do we know why?
And tonight, they are reminded, we do not dip our food even once, but tonight they dip it twice. And the fourth and final question asked, On all other nights, we either sit or recline, but why tonight do we recline? These questions to bring us deeper into the remembrance. Do we remember why we gather? Do we remember why lent? Do we remember why we turn our faces? Do we remember who this Jesus is? Do we remember that the cross is for us? Because sometimes we forget.
In Leviticus 23, we’re reminded that the Sabbath comes every seven days. That in the first month to the 14th day we have Passover and unleavened bread which lasts for seven days and then seven weeks later is the Festival of the First Fruits. And then in the seventh month on the first day is the Feast of Trumpets. The 10th day is the Day of Atonement and then the Festival of Booths.
Every seven years there is a Sabbath and every seven times seven years there is a year of Jubilee. All of these things are designed to remind the people — people who forget — that God is our source. That freedom is our calling. And we are to live in accordance with the rhythm of the God of all life in whom we live and move and have our being.
And so my friends, on this night as we remember ashes, we are reminded that we’re in need of at least a once-a-year reset. A remembrance that we are dependent upon the love and grace of God. That as human people, we are frail, we’re imperfect, we harm one another and we have been harmed and we are in need of grace.
Tonight, this is the reminder that we are indeed human, frail people, but we are a people who are held in God’s love and in God’s grace. Because so much of this world teaches us to put on strong armor, to walk around with personas that we are sure will keep us safe. And tonight the ashes call… they call us to remember.
Remember that we are dependent earthlings formed from dust, and to dust we will return. Ash Wednesday is the invitation into Lent. Where for the next 40 days, we journey with Jesus turning our faces towards Jerusalem. Not because we are nothing, but because we are vulnerable people who need to be held in the love and grace of God. And brought back to the cross, reminded that we are beloved ones, meant to know the good news and have our lives transformed evermore.
The other thing that I wanted to remind us about tonight, is that the Christian calendar itself begins not in Passover, but in Advent and that is because the place we begin is the place where Emmanuel, God comes to earth and is with us.
What happens as we get ready for Ash Wednesday, typically, is that we burn the Palm branches from Palm Sunday prior, or if you forget to do that, you go find some new ones and burn them. We do this symbolically, because it reminds us that people had palm branches, and they thought Jesus was here to blow things up and get rid of the Roman empire. And yet, Jesus comes on a donkey bringing peace. And isn’t that just like hope?
Hope interrupts, not in a way that is perfect or final or triumphant sounds or blasts of horns, but it’s something more like a light of a candle that illuminates the dark. And as we hold that and we share it with one another, the brilliance of God’s new morn is birthed both in us and through us and around us, indeed.
In creation and in Sabbath, we are reminded that we are dependent upon the God of the universe who has already been creating and so we rest. In Passover, we are reminded that we were a people who were enslaved and brought to freedom in this God. And then, on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are vulnerable and frail and in need. And we are indeed image bearers of God. The God who is indeed Emmanuel with us.
And in a world where we know pain. And we know sorrow. What if instead of it being a call for us to bear arms and destroy one another, the call of the Lenten journey is one that invites us more deeply into the way of Christ, the way of life. For indeed, we are made from dust, to dust we will return. And in between those two moments, we are held by the grace, the creator and sustainer of all things, including us.
So may the hope of Jesus Christ be yours this night. Wherever you are in need, may you know you are not alone in this journey. May we remember. And may we journey with Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and into life. Amen.