Ash Wednesday - white cross and green leaves on purple background
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Sermon – Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Sermon Preached by Reverend Stuart Langshaw on Wednesday, 14 February 2024.

In the light of the traditional practices we observe on Ash Wednesday, a study of what the Bible had to say about foreheads is quite instructive. Here are some statistics about foreheads in the Bible that I and you never knew before today:-

The forehead is mentioned 13 times in the Bible – once or twice it is referred to as the “brow.”

The Old Testament has the forehead mentioned 6 times, and the New Testament 7 times.

Exodus 28:38. In the days when the tabernacle was being set up with its furnishings and equipment, a blue turban was made for Aaron, and at the front, where it covered his forehead, it contained a gold plate engraved with the words “Holy to the Lord.” Aaron was to wear the turban and engraved plate continuously as a constant reminder to the people when they saw it.

I Samuel 17:49. Medically speaking Goliath’s forehead was his susceptible anatomical spot where young David’s sling stone hit him, and sunk beyond frontal bone and into the Philistine’s forehead, and perhaps to the facial nerve. Whatever happened medically, David’s sling stone caused Goliath’s death.

In 2 Chronicles 26:19, the young, presumptuous king Uzziah’s leprosy spread to his forehead – there was no disguising it.

The word of the Lord to Jeremiah said that he was to have a harlot’s brow – too set in its way for any shame. (Jeremiah 3:)

In Ezekiel 3:8 God said to the prophet that God had made Ezekiel’s forehead hard against the people’ s forehead – you know when we see people having a ding-dong argument with each other and their foreheads and faces are just a centimetre apart as they shout  – Ezekiel’s forehead was to be as stubborn for the right in such an argument with the people as they were stubborn for the wrong, unyielding.

In Ezekiel 9:4, the prophet was to put a mark on the foreheads of the people who groaned against the wrong doings of the people – and that mark would be a safety and protection for them (rather like the blood on the doorposts of the Hebrews in Egypt in Moses’ day).

In the New Testament all the references to the forehead are in the book of Revelation. Those references vary between the mark of the Lamb’s name on the believers’ foreheads (Rev 7:3 and 14:1) and the name of God on their foreheads (Rev 22:4), and the mark of the beast (Rev 14:9) and the mysterious name written on the forehead of the great harlot (Rev 17:5).

The forehead is so extraordinarily public. It’s there at eye level for all to see whatever unusual feature might be there. Marks on arms and hands and feet and the torso can be hidden and disguised. But a mark on the forehead is in your face.

In Anglican Christian baptism, immediately after the person who has been baptised has been through the ceremonial washing with the water, that person has the sign of the cross marked on their forehead  by the minister of the baptism, usually with holy oil. The explanatory words are, “I sign you with the sign of the cross to show that you are marked as Christ’s own for ever.” Each person who has been baptised bears that invisible cross sign on their forehead for ever – for the rest of their lives – so that those who have eyes to see may see that public sign – that badge – of belonging . . .  belonging to Christ as a disciple. Whatever else crosses we may wear, on necklaces, or as lapel badges, or pendants, or pectoral crosses – they are secondary to this badge on our foreheads – marking us as Christians and as God’s children for ever. That’s where the mark of the name of the Lamb and the name of God were put in the book of Revelation.

On Ash Wednesday we also make use of the canvas provided by our foreheads.  On that canvas, if we choose to do so, we receive the cross again – but this time formed of ashes.  Superimposed on our forehead badge of belonging to God and Christ is this new badge of sorrow for sin and a determination to live our Christian life with new commitment.

In Baptism, it is the baptised person alone who receives the cross, usually with olive oil. It is an individual mark of belonging. On Ash Wednesday many people receive the ash cross, it is a communal mark of commitment to live better as God’s people.

And it’s on the forehead – this most public, this most “unhideable” physical feature. You can’t receive the Ash Wednesday ashes cross by accident. Coming forward to receive the mark of the cross is a definite, determined, voluntary act of commitment, done in fellowship with other fellow believers who have chosen to do the same. The Baptism cross may be an invisible badge – the Ash Wednesday cross is highly visible. You determine that you will be marked as Christ’s own – it’s as though you determine that your Baptismal cross will be reinforced by your Ash Wednesday cross.

2. The Ash Wednesday crosses are made from the burning of last year’s Palm Sunday palm crosses. They are now dry and desiccated and have lost their freshness and vitality. We received them last Palm Sunday as symbols of welcome and victory and adoration and worship as we recalled Christ entering Jerusalem in great popularity and to great acclaim. But now, 11 months later,  their purpose and their symbol has changed beyond recognition. If you saw simply the pile of grey lifeless ashes, you would hardly guess that once they had been green, pliable symbols of applause and greeting, of devotion, high regard and reverence, waved to welcome royalty.

Now they are lifeless, almost useless.

But in God’s economy the useless ashes become highly useful – symbols for us of personal sorrow for sin and of communal commitment for improvement during Lent. Maybe as we prepare ourselves for each day’s work and activities during the next 40 days of Lent, we can stare at our foreheads in a mirror and seek to see the ash cross that we shall receive there if we choose to do so.

For 40 days we imitate the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry – time  that involved fighting his personal demons as well as the devil himself. For 40 days in Lent we live each day in the same power of God as Jesus experienced … feeling our own personal hungers … looking down from a great height on our own possibilities … and feeling the urge that comes from the world to worship other things but God.

For 40 days we look forward to that great Easter Day when we are assured that death and dominion and temptation and trial will not have the last word, will not have the victory. We look forward to that glorious day when we are reminded that in the cross of Christ we glory; that the strife is o’er, the. battle done, and that in the spiritual battle through Christ, we have won.

Our foreheads – our public bearing of our baptismal cross for ever

Our foreheads – our public bearing of our Ash Wednesday cross for 40 days

Our palm ashes – bringing us from adoration and worship to sorrow and commitment

Our 40 days – bringing us to ultimate glory and praise.