Ash Wednesday — 6 February 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 12:15 pm
Joel 2:1-2,12-17 Ps 103:8-14 2Cor 5:20b-6:10 Matt 6:1-6,16-21
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19.
One of my earliest memories as a little boy is of going to church on Ash Wednesday with my parents — in those days it would have been early in the morning — and I grew up in a very churchy family, which probably puts me in the minority among clergy — and we went up to the altar rail and the priest traced a cross of ashes on our heads and solemnly intoned, “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” (In those days everyone was “O man,” even pretty little five-year-old girls.)
Which of course reminds me of the story of the little boy (this wasn’t me!) who was playing on his bedroom floor, and happened to look under his bed, and immediately ran to his mother and said, “Mommy, remember how the priest yesterday in church said ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return’? Well, there’s somebody under my bed and he’s either coming or going.” (I think it was my grandmother who told me that story.)
It seems to be the case that this line from the Book of Genesis entered the Ash Wednesday rite sometime in the later middle ages. In the context of Genesis, Adam and Eve have messed up, with the business about the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God is laying on them and on the earth the consequences of their sin, and expels them from the Garden of Eden. In this sense today’s ashes are a sign of our mortality, as we will note in the prayer over the ashes in a few minutes. But an earlier and still more general theme is that the ashes are a sign of our penitence. To sit in dust and ashes is a traditional Jewish sign of repentance and mourning (and perhaps other cultures have done it too). Dust and ashes show up in Genesis, in Samuel, in Job, in Isaiah, in Jeremiah, in Ezekiel, in Daniel, in Jonah, in Esther, in Judith, in Maccabees, in Matthew and Luke, in the Revelation. And so it is a natural enough ritual sign of the repentance into which we enter with special intensity during this season on Lent.
“Repentance” is probably not the most popular notion in contemporary religious sensibility. I’m not sure the New Age goes in too much for repentance. Too bad. Get over it. If we think we don’t need to repent, just take a look at your life. (One way to start is to read the newspaper; and we mustn’t kid ourselves about the extent to which we are complicit in what’s going on in our community and in the world. Remember that denial is not just a river in Egypt.)
However, let’s also remember that God is not the King of Siam, and toadying and cringing and whimpering before God is not what repentance is about. Repentance is about changing the direction of our lives. And the change to be wrought through repentance is, put most simply and starkly, the change from death to life. Death is what Adam and Eve had chosen, by trying themselves on their own to be like God. Life is what Jesus offers us, in the good news of God’s Kingdom. (In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Or as St. Paul puts it, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”)
What we may not always notice is that all of this means that we, on our own, are not immortal. Lots of folks seem to think that one of the core traditional Christian doctrines is the immortality of the soul. Not at all. Not core, not traditional, not Christian. The Biblical doctrine is, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return….But….!” We are created for eternal life, but we are given it not as our own possession, but as gift, as the grace of God.
And the conquest of death and the gift of eternal life is accomplished and shared in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why we structure our shared spiritual life in the Church as we do — our Lenten repentance is to prepare us for Easter. We turn away from our own self-sufficiency, our own self-satisfaction, and turn to God with open hearts to receive God’s gift of life, now and eternally.
 John 10:10.
 1 Cor. 15:22.
© 2008 William Moorhead