Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Ashes and dust. . .

We live in a time that loves youth.  We work so hard to prolong the effects of age.  From botox to facelifts to face creams, we resist the march of time and its destiny.  I once buried a fellow who joked he would be the best looking body in the coffin.  He had it right.  Though we spend energy and money to postpone death and we run from any admission of our culpability to its cause, sin and death cannot be ignored.  Sin and its death are the worst kept secret of all.  On this day we admit what we are so tempted to deny.  We are mortal.  We are sinners. We cannot save ourselves.

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).
Though we hear the caution of Jesus against pride in our piety (And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” Mt 6:16-17), Jesus is not at all suggesting that ashes or acts of penitence be dispensed with.  Not at all.  Jesus does just the opposite.  He reminds us that external acts cannot make up for an empty heart and that genuine repentance is more than deeds.  It is a salutary warning.  We heed it not by internalizing everything but by making sure that our external acts and words flow from the repentance of the Spirit working in us to confess our sins and believe in the forgiveness Christ alone gives.  For those so concerned, our unfailing glorification and pursuit of youth is far more dangerous than this pious and faithful mark of confession.

So come.  Confess.  Repent.  Believe. Christ has hidden hope even in ashes and death.  You know this.  You are the baptized.  Live this faith.


Timothy Carter said...

Beautifully written, Pastor.
Ash Wednesday begins 40 days of contemplation of our sinful nature leading to the forgiveness of Easter. A somber time but a joyful time...we know the outcome.
Timothy Carter, simple country Deacon. Kingsport, TN.

Janis Williams said...

Beauty in ashes, indeed. Well said, and invitation accepted.