By the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread,
till thou return unto the ground;
for out of it wast thou taken:
for thou art dust, O mortal,
and unto dust thou shalt return. Genesis 3:19
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.
In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus (or Xerxes, 485-464 B.C.) of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Est 4:1). Job, in response to his awareness that he had conducted himself equal with God, repented in “dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years, so he “turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). When Jonah arrived in Nineveh to proclaim God’s wrath and condemnation on an apostate people, the king “arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6). In each of these occurrences, and others in Scripture, it is a revelation--that is, self-awareness in the light of God’s presence, that drove people to dust and ashes.
As people of faith, it is hard to believe that being exposed to the Revelation of God would produce anything less immediate than humble devotion. The witness of Old Testament accounts affirms that once God is realized, the physical response mirrors the spiritual awareness, but this was not always the case. Jesus himself spoke of a growing and obstinate refusal to enter into the presence of God even when God was present in the flesh.
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed because they did not repent.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. (Matthew 11:20-22)
Throughout scripture, sackcloth, dust, and ashes symbolize mourning, mortality, and penance, but the revelation must be encountered in the spiritual center—from the inside, for the symbol to have true meaning on the outside.
Tomorrow, during our Ash Wednesday service, you will be invited (in the words of the BCP) to the observance of a Holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self denial; and by reading and meditating of God’s Holy Word (265). With blessed ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of last year, the sign of the Cross will be marked on your forehead with the words, Remember that thou art dust of mortal, and unto dust thou shalt return.
Before the imposition, we recall that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23) and we mourn and willingly anticipate penance for our sins. We again commit our hearts to the Lord, who suffered, died, and rose for our salvation. We renew the promises made at our baptism when we died to an old life and rose to a new life with Christ. Finally, mindful that the kingdom of this world passes away, we strive to live in the kingdom of God now and look forward to its fulfillment in Heaven.
The revelation of God is made manifest in us through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit and that awareness drives us to sackcloth and ashes. For 40 days we are compelled to a Holy Observance, painfully aware of our sinful nature, but we are embraced by the love of Christ even as we take up our cross.
Receive the ashes in humble awareness and persevere through Lent in humble devotion and joyful expectation of a new life in Christ!
Faithfully in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†