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Ashes of Death: Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, 2024

          We began the season of Lent with death. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It could seem odd that those first Lenten words directed so particularly to each one of us, repeated for each penitent approaching the priest to receive the sign of his penitence, speak not of the sin we hope to leave behind, but of the death that is to come.

          Lent incredibly captures the attention of men and women, even today. There were more people in this church on Ash Wednesday than at Christmas! We know that we need a new beginning, a fresh start, a chance to start the process of becoming a better person. And we need someone to speak clearly to us of that necessity, and to mark it on our foreheads.

          What we do not want to confront is set before us starkly: that every new beginning is preceded by death. The beautiful sign of God’s covenant with Noah is preceded by the death of every person on earth except the eight in the ark. The new beginning only happens, when the old beginning dies.

          Of course, we are afraid of death, and always have been, ever since it reared its ugly head in the garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s sin. Death is one of the consequences of sin, the loss of the original gift of immortality. However, it is also the result of sin. St. Augustine taught that the fear of death is the root of sin. I found that odd when I encountered that teaching of the great Doctor of Grace. It would seem like the lack of fear of death causes a lot of sin. People think they will always have time to repent later, or they presumptuously lack fear of God’s just judgement that will follow immediately upon death.

          However, Augustine knew better than I. His point is that because we are afraid of death, we try to create our own eternity here in this world. This is why we find sin so attractive, because with our vanity, envy, materialism, and pride, we look to drag out our time in this world. In our fear of death, we do not know how long we will have to enjoy the pleasures of this world, and so we start to seek them outside their proper order. That is what sin really is. Pleasure is not sinful in itself. But our fear of death leads us to seek it for its own sake, to seek it outside its proper order.

          There can be little doubt that we are increasingly afraid of death. Modern medicine often acts not out of compassion for the suffering, but out of a desire to delay death at all costs, even when it causes more suffering to the dying. Even euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is ironically an expression of fear of death, by seeking to get it over with as soon as possible, rejecting suffering at all costs.

          Compounding the problem is that we are afraid of the remedy. Several years ago, a family presented a six-year-old child for baptism. As we were preparing for the baptisms, together with several other families who were baptizing that day, he began to scream, “I don’t want to be baptized!” This put me in quite a quandary. No one is supposed to be baptized against his will. But his uncle reported that the family had attempted to explain to the child that he needed to be baptized, so that if he died, he would go to heaven. So the poor child thought that when he was baptized, he would die and go to heaven. We baptized the other children first, and having seen that they did not die and go to Heaven right away, his fears subsided.

          You too are often like that child, afraid of the remedy, every time you sin. Every sin is another choice of the sickness instead of the cure. Faced with the fear of death, we so often choose what will seem to make us happy through illicit pleasure, afraid that our limited mortal nature will soon take it away. If we are afraid of the remedy to the disease, then the only solution is that our sickness must grow worse.

          This is what happens when, as one poet put it, “The wounded surgeon plies the steel / That questions the distempered part; / Beneath the bleeding hands we feel / The sharp compassion of the healer’s art // Our only health is the disease / If we obey the dying nurse / Whose constant care is not to please / But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse, / And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.” (T.S. Eliot, East Coker).

          The ashes that marked our heads on Wednesday, then, do not declare only, “I want to change,” “I want to be a better person,” or “I’m really sorry.” In order to be effective, they need to mean, “I want to die.”

          In order to overcome a fear, you have to draw closer to the object of your fear. You can pray for the gift of courage, you can take baby steps at first, you can get better at positive self-talk, but at the end of the day, the fear will never be overcome unless you confront it. So likewise the fear of death.

          How do you confront death, though, when you only get one shot at it? Death is not something you can practice for, in a literal and complete sense at least. Instead, drawing closer to the remedy means dying to yourself. This is the death that the ashes of Wednesday declare. “I want to die to myself.” “I want to die to myself by rejecting sin and temptation.” “I want to die to myself by showing fruits of my conversion in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving,” which of course do not earn us forgiveness, but are the fruits of the joy that comes from receiving the Lord’s forgiveness. This is why the Lord encouraged us not to look gloomy like the hypocrites, because fasting and the other Lenten disciplines are a response to receiving the Lord’s mercy, a fruit of interior conversion while they seek to deepen that same conversion in your life.

          Now we can see more deeply why Lent is so different from a self-help program, or just an attempt to be a better person. The stakes are so much higher!  Throughout Lent, we practice dying to ourselves, so that when Good Friday comes, we are ready to enter into His death, and when Easter follows on the third day, we are ready to rise. Each day during Lent you should be asking yourself, “Did I die today?”

          Each Sunday – or even every day! – during Lent, we come to participate already in His death and resurrection in the Eucharist. At Holy Mass, each of those deaths to self are taken up by the Lord and brought with Him to the Cross. The Eucharist is precisely where each of those deaths leads to the fulfillment of St. Peter’s words today: “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.”

          How exactly that is so, how our deaths to self, suffering, sadness, isolation, and loneliness can be transformed by Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist will be one of the central themes of our Tuesday Lenten series this year: “Christ Truly Present,” culminating in our 40 Hours devotion next month. I hope that you will take part in order to hear the rest of the story.


The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

I Sunday of Lent, A.D. MMXXIV


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