In baptism and through water we are marked by God as one of God’s own. Baptism is the symbol of being born again. On this day Christians around the world are marked with ashes.
To be marked with ashes with the sign of the cross is really the only time Christians look distinctive or set apart from others. No one can see your baptism. Wearing a cross means little nowadays since it is now mostly a decorative symbol. Most Christians do not have hats or caps for the head, or veils to cover the face.
This one day of the year, all over the world, Christians gather in places of worship to be smudged, right there in the middle of the forehead.
We are marked for penitence:
Not a one of us will leave here unscathed by sin. It gets to us all. We mark others with our failures and fears and we too become victims bearing the scars of hurt and pain – some you see but most you do not.
We are fooled into thinking that sin is a private matter, between us and God. Sin nearly always affects those around us. We are here together, tonight as a family. This whole business of being marked by ashes got started centuries ago when sinners were singled in the public in order for them to be brought back into the church. The trouble is once you start marking every sinner with ash, not a person is left out, no not one.
“Ash Wednesday is the most honest of days.” (Christian Century, February 2014)
And so we have to be honest – we are frail and broken, every one of us. “If you only knew…,” we think to ourselves, “the sin that soaks my heart.” Sin is not merely about doing bad things or thinking bad thoughts. It is a failure to live up to God’s own Image. We are created, all of us, in the image of God. Jesus spoke of loving our neighbors and loving our enemies. Jesus spoke of forgiving, without limits. Jesus spoke of denying the self and thinking of others.
“If you only knew how far I have failed in living up to the Image of God, but the sin is mine, right? My sin is my business, right?”
This public worship which includes the marking of ashes is an acknowledgment that we are in this sin business together. Not one of us gets by in our life, let alone this day, without having fallen short of God’s glorious hope for us. Just as the scriptures take sin seriously not merely for the individual but for the entire community, so we too are making a covenant to move forward, together, as God’s fellowship, God’s community, God’s family of faith.
Ashes remind us that sin is deadly and left on our own we are hopeless. They are a sign that we are in this together.
We enter this season reflecting on what it is we need to “die” to, repent from, and live towards. It is a time to walk towards the restoration and redemption that comes by way of cross and tomb.
And like the cross and tomb, we do not have to stay there. Just as we will soon wash the ashes away from our hands or foreheads, we are reminded that we are marked to walk in a new life. We mark ourselves out of penitence. We have sinned.
We are marked as mortal:
Perhaps this is the most sobering of all. In Genesis 3:19 God tells Adam, “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.”
There will come a day that our earthly remains will be nothing more than a scattering of dust. All I have to do is walk outside to our church’s Memorial Garden and consider those who have gone before us whose remains are nothing more than ash scattered beneath grass. I have interred mentors, friends and members who were like family to me in that garden.
There in that ground the ashes of husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, daughters and sons are co-mingled in the earth in the shadow of the resurrection window. They at one time lived and walked this earth. They raised children, cooked suppers, laughed, lived, loved and worshipped alongside us. Now just dust.
Jesus spoke that one has to release one’s life (which is in itself an enormous act of faith) in order to gain it (Matthew 10:7; 16:25). We know that Jesus’ journey takes him to the deadly timbers of the cross.
Ash Wednesday and Lent call on us to ignore the anxious voices that cannot believe in anything but the self, and listen to the voice of the One, who out of dust, breathed in each the breath of life. There will come a day when our breath returns to the Creator.
This takes courage and faith and trust in the mercy of God.
Finally the ashes that mark us on Ash Wednesday are an invitation to follow. For me this season is an important reminder that whatever it is I face or will face in my life – and one can scarcely imagine what awaits us in our lifetime – its scope does not exceed the reach of God. I do not know how I will face all that confronts me, but then again that is not my primary concern. I am called to follow on this journey.
To acknowledge that we are but dust is itself a great act of faith. For then we can more fully enter into the largeness of God.
In its own way the smudged ashes become a symbol of blessing.
- Blessing because in penitence there is forgiveness.
- Blessing because in our mortality there is life eternal.
- Blessing that we do not travel alone.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Through dust and breath, we have been marked by God and for God.
Through ashes and water, we have been marked by God and for God.
And through the cross and hope of Easter we have been marked by God and for God; today and all our days. Amen.