One of the best spiritual internet memes I’ve seen for Ash Wednesday and Lent says the following: “We are all equal. We came here by birth and will leave in death.”
The Church Season of Lent starts on Ash Wednesday when we hear again the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And the day we call Ash Wednesday is an annual reminder of our mortality in order to encourage us to turn toward God in penitential reflection and prayerful dedication. In addition, this special day begins our annual Lenten journey of spiritual devotion in preparation for the coming of Holy Week and Easter Sunday, totaling forty days and six Sundays of Lent (46 days from Ash Wednesday). And of course, the seventh Sunday following Ash Wednesday is Easter Sunday, the Sunday celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I have to say, there’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something that draws us for a special midweek service every year. It’s more than just habit or duty, and somehow more than just the beginning of Lent, because what we do and what we say on this special Wednesday has power. With the imposition of ashes on our foreheads and the proclamation of solemn words there is GOSPEL POWER for our souls.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
There it is… We are mortal. We were born. We will die… Ashes to ashes and dust to dust… And as if hearing these words were not enough, these words are literally rubbed into our faces! With an ashen cross rubbed upon our foreheads, our mortality is strangely visible for all to see (including for ourselves in the mirror when we get home).
Then in our Gospel reading from Matthew 6, we hear Jesus go one step further. He reminds us that even our earthly treasures we work so hard for are destined for dust and ashes. Moth and rust and thieves can and will reduce to dust every treasure, accomplishment and goal we hold dear — and all of this seems like bad news.
So how is there gospel power here for us on Ash Wednesday? How is there GOOD NEWS in all this?
To find the good news here, we need to begin with the ancient past, and we Christians hold the following conviction from ancient times as firmly as we know the certainty of our own physical death. And this ancient conviction is firstly that we and all things are created by the Infinite, Eternal and Almighty God of all — “of all that is, both seen and unseen.” In other words, the cosmic scrambled eggs of the universe did not just unscramble themselves without the cosmic fine-tuning of the Universal Orchestrator. In fact, every cosmological constant, and even the Big Bang itself, needed to be tuned JUST SO for all life to exist. If anything was off by even the infinitesimally smallest degree (including the intensity of the Big Bang itself), then we and all life would be impossible. Therefore, the “dust” of our ancient evolutionary beginnings is not a cosmic fluke. It was and is orchestrated on a razors edge to produce us and all things. Our lives are gifts from God, nothing less.
So, a part of the good news of Ash Wednesday is that our ancient evolutionary dust was molded by the very hands of God, and God’s Spirit is that which breathes life into the universe. God is the awesomely wonderful Creator of all that is, and what at first appears to be threatening (the phrase “you are dust”) becomes an affirmation of faith. That is, God our Supreme Maker is with us from eternity, from before even time and space came into being at the Big Bang, and this means that our ancient evolutionary dust is a sacred and holy dust. And the grace and love present from before the beginning of Creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond it.
Lastly, these ashes on Ash Wednesday are not just randomly smeared on our foreheads without design. They are intentionally placed on us in the form of the cross of Christ. So, with the symbol of the cross of Christ on our flesh, we mortals are connected with the ULTIMATE LOVE OF GOD expressed on Good Friday and the EVERLASTING LIFE established on Easter Sunday. On Ash Wednesday, we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so too, with Christ Jesus, we shall rise from the dust of death to immortality with him! Yes, to dust we shall return, but to dust WITH Christ Jesus our Lord, and THROUGH this dust we shall rise to the life everlasting in Christ.
Therefore, dust and ashes are actually good news for us. They point us toward the power and love of God, both at the beginning of all things and at the end of all things — from the Alpha to the Omega, from everlasting to everlasting. And they remind us that, because of this good news, we are called to self-reflect, repent, and return to the Lord in our lives — to return to our risen Lord Jesus in faith and hope.
The call of Ash Wednesday to repent centers on God’s love — the love that is at the heart of the entire Creation and that is revealed most fully in the cross and empty tomb of Jesus. So, remember the good news and the hope of these ashes! Return to the Lord your God in the joy of your salvation, for the Eternal One who created us is calling us to himself through his only begotten Son. To this end, we are given the special gift of Ash Wednesday and Lent — a special time to hear God’s call with some real depth and to grow in our affirmative response to this call.
Together in Christ, Pastor Tim