On the Imposition of Ashes
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:19)
Many years ago—before he was executed by the Nazis—the great German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Jesus Christ calls a disciple, he bids that person, “Come and die.”
On this Ash Wednesday, I’ll wager, at least some of us feel as if we are being challenged to respond to that sort of call—not necessarily literally; not necessarily to answer a call to physical death. But there are lots of ways of dying—lots of things to die for, and lots of things to die to. Perhaps we are being called to die to self—to let go of ambitions, or dreams, or familiar ways of doing things. Comforts. Illusions. Harbored resentments. Cherished fears.
But I think that behind and beyond all of these calls to death, the real call is to trust. Trust in what? How about resurrection? How about new birth?
An acorn can’t become a tree by relaxing in a bucket of water inside your house. It needs to push its roots into the soil, hard and rocky though it may be. That’s where it gets its nourishment and its solid footing. It needs to be buffeted by the wind to become strong, yet flexible. It needs the cold winters to store up its energy, so it can burst into new life in the spring.
We all know that if we wrote our own life script using our own yardstick for success, we would be as spiritually anemic as a seedling growing in water. We don’t always know how a time of trial will help us grow. And we don’t need to. We only need to face it—and embrace it—with the radical trust that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). We only have to look back on our own lives to know that our greatest lessons have come through our times of greatest challenge; our depth and wisdom have come through our times of pain and loss.
Today we begin a Lenten journey that leads through the wilderness and to the cross before it reaches the empty tomb. And we begin that journey by wearing the ashes of mortality and repentance. The ashes and the journey toward the cross help us get our bearings—not only for Lent, but for our lives. They help us lift our sights beyond our own pleasure and pain so that we can discern God’s higher purpose—to devote our creativity, compassion, and courage to the reconciliation of the world to God’s truth and justice and love. They help free us from anxiously avoiding hardship and loss, and open us to God’s power to deepen and strengthen us through our trials. And the ashes and the journey help link us compassionately with all people, who like us must find their way through mortality and suffering, and through those trials discover that mysterious love from which nothing in life or death can separate us.
As we come forward to receive the ashes, to contemplate mortality, uncertainty, and the value of trial, let us ask God to show us the things that are worthy of the life he has given us, and the spirit he has created in us.
Almighty God, from the dust of the earth you have created us. May these ashes be for us a sign of our mortality and penitence, and a reminder that only by your gracious gift are we given eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.