Marked for all to see
I’ll never forget the first time I received ashes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. I was part of a non-denominational church in New York City, a church that, although it was a relatively new church plant, was committed to be grounded in the historic practices of Christianity. The words spoken over me at the imposition of the ashes stirred my emotions and challenged my comfort level:
“From dust you came, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel!”
By the end of the service there were nearly 300 of us with cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads. We were united in our humility and our commitment to be faithful to the gospel and to enter into the penitential season of Lent.
However, in a few short minutes, I found myself in the subway system of New York and my commitment to Christ stood out to my fellow straphangers like an unsightly pimple on my nose. Do I cover them with my cap? Do I wipe them off? Or do I allow the ashes to continue to do their work of humbling my proud spirit? I opted for the latter.
What’s all the hullabaloo?
Depending on the Christian tradition you are in or familiar with, you may fully get the ashes, both literally and figuratively, or you may wonder what all the hullabaloo is about, especially as we enter the Christian season of Lent and its starting point, Ash Wednesday. There are three Scripture passages that lay out the basis for this liturgical practice.
Our Creation: Genesis 2:7
…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (NRSV).
The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. One of the burial rites in the Book of Common Prayer reads as follows: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother/sister ___________; and we commit his/her body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him/her and keep him/her, the Lord make his face to shine upon him/her and be gracious unto him/her and give him/her peace. Amen.” That prayer reminds us of our next reality, also reflected in Scripture.
Our Curse: Genesis 3:19
“By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
Human beings, originally created to live forever, sinned, and sin brought about death—spiritual death and physical death. The curse that sin brought shows up in many ways: our struggle to make a living, our conflicts with the natural world and each other, and our mortality—“it is appointed for mortals to die once” (Hebrews 9:27). And the sin that we inherit (original sin) and the sin that we commit (personal sin) if not dealt with, leads us to the judgment of eternal death and separation from God. That truth leads us to our need to confess.
Our Confession: Psalm 51:7-10
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
This was David’s prayer after he was confronted with his sin of adultery and murder. Those are two heavy-duty sins, yet all sin causes us to fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Our confession should be continual, for sure. Ash Wednesday is a time to be reminded that, except for the grace of God and his love through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we would be forever lost in our sin. And so we confess, we pray, and we determine to live in a way to please him.
A Prayer for Ash Wednesday
Lord, Holy One, have mercy on us. We confess our sins to you. We have fallen short of your glory and without your mercy and grace, we would be dust. We repent now. Lord, as we enter into this Lenten season, be near to us. Help us, by your Holy Spirit, to feel right conviction and repentance for our sin. Help us, by your Spirit, to have the strength to overcome the enemy.
Thank you, Lord, that Easter is coming! Death has no sting, no victory, because of Jesus! Glory and honor and praise to his name! Thank you for rescuing us. Help us keep both the weight and the joy of this season in our hearts as we move through the next several weeks. Help us bear the good fruit of your Spirit.
Thank you that the ashes on our forehead do not symbolize our ultimate reality. From dust we might have been formed, but our bodies, our spirits, ourselves, await beautiful redemption and the restoration of all things. Help us long and look forward to that day, and let it come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.
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