Joel 2:1,2, 12-17; Matt 6:1-6, 16-21
St Barbara’s; 1.3.17
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Our two Bible readings give us particular insight into this day of Ash Wednesday. Joel, speaking to the people of Judah at one of the darkest points of their history, under invasion from a massive super-power, calls people to repent, to put on sackcloth and ashes, for it is still not too late. Our God is gracious and compassionate, he says, slow to anger and abounding in love. In our Gospel reading, Jesus warns of superficial repentance, of doing things for appearances’ sake. It is what takes place in the heart that counts.
In a few moments time, after a time of penitence, of asking God’s forgiveness, I will invite you to come and receive the mark of the cross, using ash, dust, upon your forehead. In some ways it may appear a very public act, something which Jesus himself seems to be warning us against. But in fact, if we own the act for ourselves, if we reflect upon the words and symbols, we may find them anything but superficial ritual.
As you receive the dust, the ash, upon your forehead I will say the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
Those are not comfortable words to say or to hear. They may bring to mind for some of us the words said at a funeral service – “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. But they are important words to hear.
“Remember that you are dust”. Those words remind us that our very life, our very existence, is a gift from God. In the creation account of Genesis, we are told “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” It is a humbling and inspiring thought. Humbling in that our sense of importance and significance is not tied up with my own accomplishments or physicality. I am mere dust. Indeed the word humility comes from the root humus – earth. I can claim to come from nothing more extraordinary than dust. But what is extraordinary, what is inspiring, is that the breath of God transforms us from mere matter to a living being. God is the creative source of life: it is in him that we have our being. We live because he breathes in us with his love. He is the source of our life, no matter how much we may be tempted to think otherwise. Lent is a helpful way to re-align our perspective.
“And to dust you shall return.” Those words remind us of our mortality. Most of the time we prefer not to think about death. I am struck by how people in their late teens and early twenties often live as if they are immortal, happy to take great risks with their lives. As we get older, we perhaps get wiser, or more cautious, but I wonder if we ever become any more honest with ourselves. We know that death can happen at any time. We know that there is no guarantee that life will continue on and on, and yet talk of death is avoided. These words remind us that death will come to us all, but we say them in the context of a service that reminds us of the salvation of God. Our death ushers in the great Christian hope of resurrection, of eternal life with God. Confronting, being honest about, our own mortality enables us to more fully embrace our calling and destiny – eternal life in the presence of God.
The next words: “Turn away from sin”. Humility, honesty, and now, penitence. Today marks the beginning of Lent, that time when we are particularly conscious of the cost, the gravity, the seriousness of our sins, for it is a season that culminates with the events of Holy Week and Good Friday. The journey to the cross is one that we travel with particular attention in Lent, and we cannot do so without becoming aware of our own part in making Christ’s sacrifice and death necessary. To understand the love of God we must come to understand how far God has gone to love us. We come acknowledging that he is the source of life now, he is the source of eternal life, and he is the source of our forgiveness, which makes life possible.
And the final words I will say: “Be faithful to Christ”. Humility, honesty, penitence, resolution. In the light of God’s love, we resolve to follow him, to be faithful to him. To live lives that celebrate his gift of love, that give expression to his creative spirit within us, that respond with mercy and forgiveness to others because of the infinitely greater mercy and forgiveness we have received from him.
But it is not only the words that carry significance. It is the mark that is made. No matter how smudged or imperfect, what will be marked on our foreheads is the sign of the cross.
Whether we were baptised as an adult or child, during baptism we at some point are marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross. It is a mark of God’s grace, of Christ claiming us for his own. As we begin this season of Lent, and its challenges and seriousness, it is good to be reminded once again, “Christ claims us for his own”. That throughout the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, God claimed his people for his own. That throughout the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, God claimed Christ as his own. That throughout the 40 days of Lent, God claims us for his own. We are his people, his children.
The mark of the cross points us back to our baptism. It of course points us forward too, to Calvary. Lent is a time when the cross of Christ is brought into sharper focus, when we give time to meditating on his sacrifice for us on the cross. It is a time, in the words of Isaac Watts, for “surveying the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died.”
But the ash-marked cross points us beyond Calvary as well. Throughout Lent, we live knowing the full story. For the cold ash we use today reminds us of a bonfire that we will light before dawn on Easter Sunday, a fire that will burn bright in the darkness, a fire from which we will light the Easter candle, a fire that will welcome in the dawn and the celebration that Christ is risen.
This Lent, we humbly acknowledge our need of God, our mortality and our failings, so that we can all the better appreciate the depth of Christ’s sacrifice that claims us for his own and helps us to break forth from the tomb of sin and death to glorious resurrection life.
Remember that from dust you came and from dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.