RCL: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something that draws us here in both numbers and intensity quite unusual for a weekday. It’s more than just habit or duty – somehow more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and what we do on this special Wednesday has power.
A large part of that power probably lies in the fact that today the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we say – and confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There it is. Much else that we say in here we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die.
From dust, to dust. As if hearing the words were not enough, they are literally rubbed into our faces. Ashes mark us – and our fate is strangely visible.
Then Jesus goes one step further. He reminds us that dust is the destination, not just of our bodies, but of most of what we consider to be worth living for, as well. Moth and rust and thieves can – and will – reduce to dust virtually every goal, every dream, every value, every treasure we hold dear. And we know that to be true, too. These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries both to hide and to deny – and that we usually do our best to ignore.
Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. These are the final return on virtually every investment we make. Today we say this, and we know its truth and its power.
And that looks like bad news – unmitigated bad news – even though we have known it all along. These grim, honest words can be devastating.
We all know the personal crisis that comes with that first mature realization of the absolute certainty of our own death. We know how jarring it is, and on this day we are reminded of this, and brought closer to this.
From dust, to dust.
To find the Good News here, we need to begin with the past, and with a conviction we Christians hold as firmly as we know the certainty of our own death. This Good News is the conviction that we are created by God – that we did not just happen, that we did not emerge willy-nilly by some cosmic fluke. The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it is not without meaning. Our lives are gifts from God. Nothing less. Our dust was molded by the very hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it.
So, part of the Good News is that we have been made from dust. The grace and power of God are present at the beginning of our existence. Our dust is holy, our ashes are blessed by the power of God. What appears a threat – “you are dust” – becomes, if we pay attention, a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before. Our dust is holy; it is cherished by God.
Notice something else. These ashes on our forehead are not just tossed there, or scattered at random. They are placed in the form of a cross – so today we mortals are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.
Dust and ashes are Good News: They point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return. To return to our risen Lord. That’s what “repent” means: to turn, to change the direction in which we are looking and moving, and to look and to move in a new direction.
If you’re in Chicago and you’re driving to New York, going west, then you just won’t ever get there – no matter how many times you pull over to the side of the road, stop the car, get out and apologize. To “repent” is to turn around.
And today’s call to us to repent doesn’t center on fear – on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t center on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope.
At the same time, such turning – such repentance – is not something we can think ourselves into; it is not something to which we can pay lip service – or forehead service – and have happen. It depends on concrete action. We don’t think ourselves into a new state of being. We live and we act ourselves into it.
Both Holy Scripture and the accumulated spiritual insight of our tradition tell us that the classical and ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving are powerful helps as we hear and move toward obeying God’s call to return. They are universally recognized ways of keeping our journey moving in the right direction.
Jesus commands these three, and he goes the extra step of insisting not only that we practice them, but also that we do so privately – indeed, secretly. By the way, Jesus is being quite straightforward here, quite literal. God simply ignores the actions of those who deliberately attract attention to their religious deeds.
That’s why we’re counseled to wash our faces and to go about in quiet obedience. In that way our reward – our growth into Christ and his growth in us – will be something quite safe from rust, and moths, and thieves – and the admiration of others.
So, remember that you are dust – and rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. And repent, return to the Lord – in joyful obedience. For he who created us is calling us to him. To this end, we are given the special gift of Lent – a time to allow us to hear that call with some real depth, and to respond.
— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.