We have received the sign of ashes on our foreheads, reminding us of our own mortality; that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
But it is more than simply the fact that we shall die someday that we remember on this day.
We also confess by the receiving of dust on our foreheads the futility of life without God, how life without God is so much dust and ashes.
It is for this reason that in the ancient world, those who realized their sins turned to God by covering themselves in ashes; it was an enacted confession that their lives, upon which they had looked with such pride, were not made of durable stuff, stuff that would last – but instead were impermanent, fragile, unstable, consumable.
To cover oneself with ashes was to indicate to God and everyone else the true state of their own life without God, to turn away from that life and to pray that God would open another possibility, the possibility of an enduring life with him.
So it is that we come on Ash Wednesday, not sitting in ashes, but with the ashes on our foreheads, participating in a time-honored tradition of humanity, to remember that death is not only a thing that happens at the end of life; but that without God, life itself is death.
Anger; fear; wrongful desires; untruth; greed, jealousy – the desire to control others for our own pleasure or benefit; all are driven by fear of death, and all have the power to inflict death.
Even the good things which God provides, if we make them into idols and put our trust in them rather than God, can deal death rather than life, and will fail us.
Finally, as Jesus warns us in the Gospel lesson, even the good works that we do, if we pay attention to them and put our trust in them, can become a snare to us. When we do them for the praise of others, we are no longer doing them for God’s sake.
Christians believe and understand that we participate in the sinful ways of the world whether we want to or not. When the catechism tells us ‘We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things;’ our first response is to think of the ways that we have not done so. We say it as a statement of faith, and we can look for confirmation in the events of our lives.
Moreover, Christians understand and believe that the deathly ways of the world lead to the deaths of the innocent; most clearly seen in the crucifixion of Jesus, God’s own Son. The deathly ways of the world would cast God out of the world, if possible. We see this in our own time in the ways in which the violent and covetous live in the world, but also, and more important for us today, in the voluntary and involuntary ways we have rejected God in our lives.
But to sit in dust and ashes, to have the ashes on our foreheads, is actually a sign of hope. By the laws of science, that which is burned cannot be reconstituted in the same form. But by the Word and the Spirit, God can make that which is ash into something that is pleasing to him. God can restore life where there is death.
The Scripture lessons today do not simply speak of the power of sin, or the inevitability of death. Rather, each reading holds out hope. ‘Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful; slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing!’
And, St. Paul: ‘Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!’
And Jesus says, ‘your Father who sees in secret will reward you;’ and ‘Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not consume and where thieves do not break in and steal.’ He might just as well have said, ‘where life is no longer death, where there are no more dust and ashes!’
When we hear from the Catechism, ‘We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things,’ we not only meditate upon how we have rejected him. We hear the good news that God is fearsome, loving and trustworthy. He is fearsome to the powers of evil, sin and death, but he honors those who honor and respect him. He is loving and trustworthy in his promises.
And so, by sitting in ashes, we show our desire for more than the ashes. We ask God to give us more than this life. We ask God to heal us from ways of death. We ask God to put back together what has been broken apart.
So this day we commit ourselves to seeking to fear, love, and trust God above all things. We trust not in our own abilities, but in his great promises to us – that he will make something new out of the ashes, and raise us from death to life, both now and at the end. Amen