Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
A refrain spoken over the dead. A reminder for the living. We are but dust, and to dust we shall return.
Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. We close our eyes and abandon ourselves to God. These are the symbols of our humility, the reminder that our time here is short, and that we are not in control.
Ash and dust bring us into confrontation with our own mortality, our own sinfulness, and the fleeting nature of our lives here on earth. Ashes and dust are a reminder that our hope and faith must be in God alone, and not in what we can accomplish in our short time.
What, then, are we to do in the face of such confrontation with our own mortality? We must repent. In dust and ashes.
The ancients placed this symbol of death, these ashes, upon their heads as a sign of their repentance. Like worship, it was an external action that reflected an internal reality. Finally seeing the folly of their old ways, they repented in dust and ashes, hoping that the god to whom they prayed was a forgiving god. A gracious deity. A merciful Lord.
The Hebrews had such a God. His name was Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, Abounding in Love, Maintaining Love to Thousands, Forgiving Sin, Punishing the Guilty. He was a God who, above His wrath, beyond His anger, lied forgiveness, grace, and mercy. He would not turn his back forever. If his people would repent, he would quickly forgive.
Their ashes of repentance were ashes worn in hope, because their God was named Sin-Forgiver, Slave-Emancipator, Exile-Rescuer. They could repent not in fear of divine retribution, but in true sorrow, because they had the hope of forgiveness and restoration.
Their God is our God. Our God is named Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, Abounding in Love, Maintaining Love to Thousands, Forgiving Sin, and Punishing Himself for the Sake of the Guilty. Our God is named Jesus.
For it is through Jesus Christ, God the Son, that we most clearly see our God. He is the visible image of the invisible God, the one in whom all the fullness of the deity dwells. And it is in Him that, though we are but dust, we are most blessedly assured of the hope found in ashes, forgiveness through repentance.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season most commonly associated with failed attempts at self-denial. We enter Lent with good intentions to deprive ourselves of some pleasure, some token of joy we find in this life. Many will give up coffee, or social media, or sugar, because they sense that their hearts are too connected to these things. They have become idols. And it is good to lay down your idols, but it is not enough to simply lay them down.
A season of repentance requires repentance before self-denial can mean anything. We cannot simply subtract an idol from our lives without first confessing, “I am an idol worshipper.” When we try self-denial without repentance, the idol simply goes off into arid places, before it finds seven other idols more powerful than itself, and then comes back to fill your heart, leaving you worse off than before. You cannot simply ignore an idol out of existence. You must destroy it with repentance.
So I ask you, not what are you giving up for Lent, but what idol are you slaying with the ferocious weapons of dust and ashes?
The ashes you will receive tonight are the sign that you are a repentant idol worshiper. They are, in that sense, a holy parody of the mark of the beast. We receive these ashes as an act of subversion of the beast’s empire, where sin and idol worship prevail.
Through ashes, we enter into God’s kingdom. Through repentance, we are filled with life in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. On Ash Wednesday, we do not simply empty ourselves of our idols, but we invite the Holy Spirit to fill us with his power. For as Paul said, “godly sorrow leads to repentance which leads to salvation.” We receive when we let go.
Only repentant idol worshippers can be saved. Only those who bear the humble ashes, the mark of the least, can enter into the kingdom of God. Repent, therefore, and throw down your idols, taking up the life of Christ in their stead. Amen.