“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s a bit of a stark reminder of our own mortality. A few years ago, I invited my parents to attend the Ash Wednesday service at my church. I didn’t realize the implications of that invitation at the time. As my parents came forward, I placed ash on their foreheads saying, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the traditional words from Genesis used this day for the imposition of ashes. Then my wife came forward and I said those words. Children and babies I baptized came forward and I again placed ashes on their foreheads and said those words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It was powerful, yet sobering; placing ashes on these people that I loved so deeply reminding them of their own mortality. We can’t deny the fact that we are here for only a period of time. We live and we will die. If that’s not startling enough for you, we rub it in your face, quite literally on this day.
After I had led the congregation in Ash Wednesday worship one year, I learned that a little girl in the congregation that night asked her mom, “Whose ashes are on my forehead?” Her mom, a little perplexed, asked “What do you mean?” The little girl remembered a grandmother who was cremated and thought the ashes we used were from a person. The ashes we use are from palm branches of course, but the reminder of the ashes is still poignant for this night.
On this Ash Wednesday we begin the journey of Lent. Today we are called to embrace our mortality and acknowledge our sin, recognizing that dying to ourselves and following Christ is the way to true discipleship. That’s what this season is about. It begins with a stark reminder that the journey of discipleship and the journey of Lent is one of death that leads to resurrection. Just as our baptism calls us to die to ourselves and rise with Christ, today we are reminded we are but dust, yet Christ makes us into something more.
The Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, describes this sobering reality in her book Accidental Saints, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. The water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and future to meet us in the present. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God: That we are God’s, that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life. That where two or more are gathered, Christ is with us. These promises outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”
While we recognize our own mortality, confess of our sins, and are called to repentance this day, we do so with hope in the promise of God. You will notice in a moment that we place the ashes on our foreheads in the shape of the cross. While we wear the ashes as a sign of our repentance, we also wear them in the shape of a cross, remembering the grace, love and promise of Jesus. We remember today that we are scooped up from the dust of the earth and created as beloved children of God. We don’t receive these ashes in shame or guilt, but as a reminder that we are marked by the love and grace of Christ. And that love and grace should compel us to live for God alone.
If we are to be servants of God and be reconciled to God, as Paul writes, we are to commend ourselves to God, even when we are faced with challenges large and small. As we heard the words from 2 Corinthians this evening, you may have heard the reality of Christians in the early church. If they were to wear the cross of Christ, they were to face real challenges, persecution, and hardships. Paul writes, “We are to commend ourselves to God, in purity, understanding, patience, kindness, in the Holy Spirit and sincere love. That is the way to true discipleship. That is the way to a holy Lent.
While this day maybe one of smearing dirt on our faces, it doesn’t have to remain one of darkness and despair. Instead, we dirty ourselves us to remind each other to get our lives back on track, to commend ourselves to God in every way, to take Jesus’ words about fasting, prayer, and service personally and to live those words out in our Lenten journey.
During this season of Lent, you might consider fasting from something and focusing your time or giving on God. You might also consider taking something on, such as daily Scripture reading, prayer, a daily devotional that we have available, studying with others such as our book study starting on Sunday and next week. Whatever it is that you give up or take on, may it help you to come closer to Christ this season.
Christian author Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove wrote “Lent is the time when Christians interrupt the way things are to remember the way things ought to be”, and I would add both in our lives and in our world. We are reminded today that the God who created us from the dust of the earth, is the same God who loves us enough to save us from ourselves. The ashes do not have to be bring misery or despair, instead they can remind us of the God who created us, loves us, and saves us. May the ashes we receive tonight call us to remember that we are created from the dust and to the dust we will return. May they call us to repentance. May they call us to live for Christ alone. Amen.