Today is Ash Wednesday. This is the first of forty days in the season of Lent. It is a time of reflection, contemplation, spiritual discipline, and especially repentance as Christians anticipate and prepare themselves for the redemptive events of Christ’s passion.
Last night I took the dried palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration, broke them all up, and put them over a hot fire. Over the course of the next forty-five minutes, I watched the dried branches slowly wither and turn to dust and ash. By the time it was all done, no one could ever recognize that the dust was ever palm branches. It could have been just about anything. And there we have the sign and the meaning behind Ash Wednesday: In the end, we are all dust. All of our mortal striving, worrying, and pride to get ahead, posture ourselves for good positions, and preening to look better than we really are will eventually result in absolute diddly-squat. The richest person on earth, as well as the poorest, will both look exactly the same in the end. We all will be dust and ashes.
Today I will take that unrecognizable palm branch dust and apply it to the foreheads of my parishioners in the sign of the cross – a tangible reminder that this is to be a season of repentance. To be mortal means that we will all die someday. But, for the follower of God, death will not be the end. Something will arise out of the dust and ashes. New life, a life unrecognizable from the first, shall come out of it all.
The words I will utter when putting the ash to the forehead will be: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Yes, it is both an ancient and a very solemn saying. But there is much more than solemnity and tradition here – there is the hope of something different, of observing something sacred in the ashes, of knowing Christ. If you think about it, there cannot be ashes unless there is fire. When something comes close and exposed to fire, it is changed and becomes dust and ash. It is no longer distinguishable as to its original form. It will not and cannot ever be the same again.
When Moses came into contact with the burning fiery bush, he was never the same again. All that Moses was before became broken down and unrecognizable. When Isaiah came into contact with God’s burning coal in the temple as he worshiped, he would never be the same again. Isaiah was a new person, filled with a mission as God’s emissary. He became completely unrecognizable from his former existence. When the early church encountered the Day of Pentecost and the Spirit came upon them like fire, they were completely changed. The believers became dust and from the ashes there arose a church that went on to impact the entire world. They were never and could never ever be the same again.
We all share the same fate in the end. We will all eventually die. And we will all eventually face fire; it is just a matter of which fire we will encounter. Either it will be the fire of God’s purifying grace which humbly reduces us to ashes so that we can be renewed and fitted for a life with Jesus Christ forever. Or we will face the consuming fire at the end of the age that will burn in eternal torment, separated forever from the life giving grace of God.
So, today remember that you are dust. Lay aside all that now seems so important, and humbly allow Jesus to remake you and fashion you after his image. Go to that Ash Wednesday service and receive a sign of mortality, even death. For only through dying can we live.