One Sunday I was preaching in a small country Chapel in rural Cheshire as the steward gave the notices for the coming week before the service started I reached for the glass of water in the pulpit only to quickly put it down when I noticed the film of dust on the waters surface. I was rather distracted for the rest of the service, for everywhere I looked on every surface there was dust! Not that I have any problem with dust it is very friendly and always comes back. Despite dust being part of all our lives we become embarrassed when people arrive unannounced and there is a layer of dust on our furniture. How much greater our embarrassment if the looked under the bed!
With the imposition of ashes, on Ash Wednesday the secrets of our ‘dust’ are brought into the light. Ash Wednesday is not about the cheerful stories we tell ourselves . It’s an uncomfortable thing for those who are normally neatly groomed, to walk out of the church and into the sunlight with dirt smudged on our brows. For many churchgoers, Ash Wednesday is one of the only things about our faith that makes public demands on us. We can leave our singing, our prayers, our fellowship and our financial giving behind in the house of God, but the ashes that begin the Lenten season are brought outside. Those ashes are given odd looks and, perhaps, hesitating explanations.
The ashes on our foreheads tells the truth about human existence. It’s an allusion to the creation of human beings recounted in Genesis 2 and to the realities of sinful life first described in Genesis 3.
The ashes testify to the fact that we are God’s creation. We are not our own, but are totally dependent on our creator God. The ashes remind of the lies we often tell ourselves: the lie that we aren’t full of need, the lie that we are OK, the lie that we don’t really need God. Ash is a physical reminder that we are clay in God’s hands.
This ash testifies to the fact that human creatures are broken creatures. Our lives, in truth, are not whole. They are scarred and twisted by sin. Our ashed brows forbid more popular lies: the lie that we are righteous, the lie that we’ve got life under control, the lie that repentance is something for other people. Ash is a visceral reminder of our brokenness and need.
The ashes are a telling of the gospel but in dirt. Not only are they mark of the truth about sin and God’s call for repentance, but they are a public witness to the healing and forgiving love that God pours over our repentant lives. 1 Peter quotes from Isaiah that “All flesh, is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” (1 Peter 1:24-25) The epistle links Isaiah’s truth about dust to the good news of Christ; “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23). Both death and life uses the dust of the earth.
The word of the Lord, that same word that remains forever, was made flesh. The eternal word dwelt with us ‘dusty’ people and never hid the truth about our dependence and brokenness. That living word testifies to the truth we try to hide beneath polished surfaces. As we begin Lent, we move towards the cross where the polish, of self denial is stripped away to reveal the dust beneath. Pain and sin are real and terrible, but God is the creator of and the Lord over the ‘dust’ of our lives and responds to the truth of our brokenness with the greater truth of Christ’s mercy.
The ‘ashing’ is a public testimony to who we really are. It strips away our masks. When we leave the church and run into friends and neighbours, they find it hard to look away from the ash on our faces. The problem, though, is that most friends and neighbours don’t know the biblical references that the ashes and the dust contain and so can’t see the witness to our true human condition that is written on our faces.
So we are called upon to translate the message.
We have to speak about the truth of that dust, not only in the marks on our foreheads, but with our words and our bodies. Perhaps our dirty faces can be a little means of grace. Perhaps they can be a nudge from God, the push we need to live out the truth of repentance in our everyday lives. Perhaps they can prompt in us the courage to go public with the truth that we are dust and to dust we shall all return.