In Old Testament days, it was common for people who were in extreme guilt to outwardly show the strength of their repentance. They would take ashes and pour them over their heads, and they would take their garments and tear them. These were outward signs of sincere repentance which meant, “I have heard the word of the Lord. I have recognized the judgment which he has threatened upon me because of my sin, and I grieve this.” The people would use things like this to show the passion in their hearts regarding this confession.
I think Western Christians often find expressions of that much passion, that much experience of faith and repentance, uncomfortable. For example, where I was serving in Papua New Guinea, the crying and the weeping at a funeral would make the place echo so that you could not hear yourself. Here, we might think of that as being maybe a bit excessive, maybe showing a little too much emotion.
But, for them, it was a grief that came from the heart, an expression of agony at the loss of a loved one, not something that they were putting on for
We do have a sign, an outward sign, a mark of ash. Ash Wednesday is always one of the more remarkable days to be a preacher and to look out at the congregation and see that united sharing, that physical statement, of understanding what God’s word says about us. We gather together to hear the Gospel, but we also on this day recognize the reality of what the Law says: “The wages of sin is death. Dust you are, to dust you will return.”
“What Hope Do I Have?”
We recognize God never intended Adam to return to dust. Once the breath of life was breathed into him, it was never intended to be a temporary thing. Adam, having
The hope he had was the Seed of the woman, who would crush the Serpent’s head and deliver him. He had hope in the promise of the Gospel, a re-creation, a renewal which God himself would work. This re-creation was beyond the strength of Adam, dust that he is, but not beyond the strength of God, who would become flesh, would die, and have the power to rise again: Jesus Christ Our Savior.
Dust to Dust
So on Ash Wednesday, we do take a mark, a mark showing we recognize what God said is true. We are dust and to dust we shall return. This mark also speaks of hope, for we are forgiven, we are cleansed, and we have peace with God through Jesus Christ.
We are not those who live without hope. We are not those who embrace despair. We hear the Gospel. We are absolved. We come and partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. We eat and drink and receive the benefits of His death on the cross. We are marked by His Blood, cleansed, and redeemed. And for this we thank God.
So when Jesus says in Matthew, “Don’t disfigure your faces, don’t look gloomy like the hypocrites,” we are not hearing Him say to us, “Hey, you shouldn’t have done that.” Rather what we are hearing him say is “Look, take this to heart. Understand how desperately you need Me. Understand from your heart how vital it is for you to have My forgiveness. Recognize that My life gives you eternal life and that apart from Me you have no hope.”
Jesus is saying, “And let that realization not be external to you, not simply on your head, but in your mind as well. Not external to you and your clothing outside, but in your heart, which your clothing covers. Let the Word of God dwell in you richly, in other words, to remember the truth of these things.”
Echoes of Forgiveness
Ash Wednesday is a day where we share with Adam and hear the echo of God’s judgment, that spreads across Eden, all the way to us today. But more importantly, we hear the echo of forgiveness, which spreads from the cross, through the Gospel, to the ends of the world, where Jesus says, “It is finished.” These words of Christ triumph. We may be dust, to dust we shall return, but in Christ Jesus we will rise again. This is the truth that we confess and cling to.