By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. Genesis 3:19
When Adam and Eve strove to be like gods by eating from the forbidden tree, the Lord reminded them that they were not gods – they were dust. And now, in this fallen, broken world, to dust they will return.
The ashes that mark our foreheads today remind us that we, too, are made of dust.
In a culture that does its best to blind our eyes to that reality, it’s important for its own sake to remember that we are mortal. Knowing that we come with an expiration date puts our lives in the proper perspective. Do you remember a few years back, when country music singer Tim McGraw told us to “live like you were dying”? Or when the rock group Nickelback asked us how we would live, “if today was your last day”? Even the secular world gets it. Life is short. Make the most of the brief time you have. Don’t waste the precious days you’ve been given.
“Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away,” pleads the Psalmist. “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (From Psalm 90) Numbering our days rightly means that we think about more than our own wishes and desires. A heart of wisdom understands that some things are more important than our own personal bucket lists. Early in my ministry, there was a sign in the kitchen of one of my elderly parishioners:
Only one life, ’twill soon be past.
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
The ashes remind us of our now natural mortality, but they also point beyond our mortality to something even more important. For Christians, the ashes are a sign of our intention – of our desire – that a part of us actually go ahead and die!
The part of us that lives in rebellion against God and transgresses his law, the part that fails to love God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves, the part that refuses to do what is right, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God: this part, the old Adam that still asserts himself and screams “I’m not dead yet” – this part of us must die. The cancers that eat at our souls must be eventually be ripped from our inward being and cast into the fires of hell, and the sooner the better.
The ashes, then, are a sign of another kind of death, the death of the old self in repentance. They are a sign of our openness to God doing his work in us, making us new creatures, cleansed of our sinful ways, and heirs of eternal life in the age to come.
For if, according to the word of God, we have been united with Christ in baptism in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For this reason, then, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (From Romans 6)
Let these ashes remind you, then, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but there is one who saves sinners made of dust and raises them to new life and righteousness. Thanks be to God.