In the North Atlantic, about 350 miles west of Morocco, there is an archipelago, a little group of islands.  In 1418, Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator commissioned a ship’s captain named João Gonçalves Zarco to explore the coast of West Africa, but his ship was driven by a storm onto one of the islands of the archipelago, an island Zarco named Porto Santo (“Holy Port”).  The story goes that from the island of Porto Santo, Zarco looked into the distance and saw a dark cloud on the horizon, and when he investigated he found another little island, just 36 miles long and 14 miles wide, that has been described as a floating garden.  It was so heavily forested that it was virtually impenetrable.  Zarco named the place “Wood Island.”

The question was:  What to do with the island.  Zarco claimed it for Portugal (I presume he planted a flag, because that’s what explorers do), but it was too overgrown to cultivate.  So the decision was made to burn it.  The vegetation was set aflame, and it is said the island burned for seven years.  When the fire finally died out, it left a layer of ash across the whole island, and when the ash mixed with the rich volcanic soil, it turns out grapes could grow.  And not just any grapes; grapes that produced some of the finest wine of its day.  Zarco named the island “Wood Island,” but in Portuguese the name is “Isla de Madeira.”  It’s where Madeira wine comes from – wine favored by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams; wine so sought after that our founding fathers used it to toast the Declaration of Independence; wine that I understand even contributed to the American Revolution when John Hancock tried to smuggle 3000 or so gallons of it past the British. 

The point of the story is this:  Seven years of ash produced quality Madeira wine.  On this day, as we enter upon Great Lent, this immense thing that we are about to do, the church in her wisdom holds before us two symbols:  Ashes and wine.  On its most meaningful days, the church reaches for symbols not because they are complex – they aren’t; ashes are just burned palms, and wine is just fermented grapes.  The church reaches for them because they are simple yet hold such deep meaning, so what do we see when we dig a little into these images?


Ashes symbolize, first of all, our mortality.  In my prayer book, I have written this phrase:  Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulveris reventerum.  “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  Lent runs us aground on that fact.  It reminds us that we are contingent beings, that we need not be.  We exist at God’s pleasure, and one day each of us will die.  The church reminds us that because one day we will meet God, we do well to remember that what we do today has eternal significance.

Ashes also symbolize mourning, especially in the OT.  In the little book of Esther, when Mordecai learns a decree has issued that all his Jewish countrymen are to be killed, “Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry.”  (Esther 4.1)  On this day our foreheads are marked with ashes because we have something to mourn about, namely that we have sinned against God.  It’s not something we like to admit – that God has something against us -- and we are always tempted to compare ourselves to people we know have done far worse things than we believe we have done ourselves.  But Alexander Solzhenitsyn was right:  “The line between good and evil runs down the center of every human heart.”  Even if we consider ourselves religious, perhaps especially if we consider ourselves religious, we are forced on this day to admit that we have much to be sorry for, many sins to mourn. 

And, finally, ashes symbolize what they are -- what remains after a fire, just like on the Island of Madeira.  Lent is a season of fire for us – of burning away all the undergrowth in our lives, all the tangles that slow us down and keep us from running after God with reckless abandon.  And so we fast; we go to confession; we practice self-denial; we take on new spiritual disciplines, all of which are mechanisms God uses to burn away the dross in our lives, to prepare the ground of our hearts, so to speak, so we can produce good fruit.

But ashes aren’t the only symbol before us today.  Mortality and mourning, repentance and self-denial – these are not all Lent’s about, and there is more to this season than the ubiquitous question “What are you giving up this year?”  On Ash Wednesday, Christians are invited to come to the altar not once, but twice.  First for ashes, then a second time for wine.


Wine is an altogether different symbol.  In the OT, wine symbolized one thing above all others:  Joy.  In today’s reading from 2 Cor., St. Paul says a sort of curious thing: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.  (2 Cor. 6.8b-10)  As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.  How can that be?  How can sorrow and joy coexist?

If you’re looking for a book to read during Lent, I recommend Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent.  Fr. Schmemann begins introduces his book his way: 

When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going.  Thus with Lent.  Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, ‘the Feast of Feasts.’  Why can we sing, as we do during the Paschal liturgy: “today are all things filled with light, heaven and earth and places under the earth”?  In what sense do we celebrate, as we claim we do, “the death of Death, the annihilation of Hell, the beginning of a new and everlasting life . . . ?”  To all these questions, the answer is:  the new life which [ ] two thousand years ago shone forth from the grace, has been given to us, to all those who believe in Christ . . . .  Thus on Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us.

We only enter Lent, with all its little deaths, in the sure and certain promise of the Resurrection, and wine symbolizes the joy of the destination we can only just see far on the horizon but that certainly awaits us at the Great Vigil of Easter.  That’s why the Orthodox call Lent “the Bright Sadness.”  The brightness and the sadness, the ashes and the wine, go together.  They are inexplicably linked.  Fr. Schmemann explains it later:

“Sad brightness”:  The sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home.  Such is the climate of Lenten worship; such is its first and general impact on my soul.

In a moment, Fr. Warren will invite us “to the observance of a Holy Lent,” to self-examination and repentance; to strenuous effort and, when we fail, to the assurance of forgiveness.  To sorrow, yet to the inexplicable joy of the journey through this “bright sadness” toward the new life that Easter brings.  To ashes, and to wine.  God burns through each of us to cultivate endurance, patience, purity, knowledge, truth, righteousness, and our constant companion as we walk through Lent and begin to bear these fruits in our lives is the joy that awaits us.  Accept the invitation.

Come and see.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources include:

• Sam Candler, “Ashes and Wine”, posted to Episcopal Café, (last visited 24 February 2009).  Also, several entries in the source-above-all-sources, Wikipedia, which appear below.
• João Gonçalves Zarco. (2011, January 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:34, March 9, 2011, from
• Madeira. (2011, March 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:37, March 9, 2011, from
• Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's, 1969).  Quotes are from the introduction (pp. 11-12) and Chapter 2 (p. 33).
• "Ash Wednesday," in The Oxford Dict. of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev'd, F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingston eds. (Oxford: University Press, 2005): 115.
Book of Common Prayer, 265.