Though we assume that admitting this obvious fact will cause us to suffer, Ash Wednesday reminds us that confession and repentance have a good and holy outcome -- forgiveness, restoration, and renewal. On our botoxed and lifted foreheads and on the seemingly innocent foreheads of our children and grandchildren, a cross will be marked in ashes. It is the public sign of our inward repentance. It is the most poorly kept secret that we finally admit. God, be merciful to me a sinner.
Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return. God breathed into dust and Adam came into being. Adam's sin reminded him of his dust and all the sons and daughters of Adam have struggled to admit that the dust of their beginning will be the dust of their ending. Even though we try to preserve the body and place it into a vault to seal it from the forces of decay, we do not stop the death cast upon us children of dust. I wonder if, in some way, we have not made it even more obvious. For all the time, energy, and money we expend upon the pursuit of youth testifies as much to its loss and to the reign of death as it does any success we have had in slowing its progress.
On Ash Wednesday we come in sackcloth and ashes, the traditional clothing of repentance. Running no more, we admit. We are the walking dead, marked with sin to die, and helpless to save ourselves unless God Himself saves us. But that is the other side of Ash Wednesday. We come not in despair but in hope. The ashes are marked in the sign of the cross. There is life even in ashes - not the first life given us in our human birth but the new and everlasting life of Christ into which we were baptized.
On Ash Wednesday we admit that we know who we are. Far from the final act of despair by a people without hope, this is a confession made within the context of mercy. It is no play acting for show but the outward display of our inward faith. God has given life to those marked by sin for death. We are from dust and will return to dust but God has planted life in this dust and now the grave must surrender us to Him who owns even death! Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, we come not only confessing who we were but admitting who we are. Grant us the destiny written in Your blood and in the future prepared for us when You were planted like a seed into the earth and rose with the hope of eternity for us and all believers.
Scripture speaks often of ashes:
- … daughter of my people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes… (Jer 6:26).
- … and shout aloud over you and cry out bitterly. They cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes;… (Eze 27:30).
- The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes… (Jonah 3:6).
- Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes (Mt 11:21).
So come. Confess. Repent. Believe. Christ has hidden hope even in ashes and death. You know this. You are the baptized. Live this faith.