These are the words that get spoken over us on Ash Wednesday as our foreheads are marked with the sign of the cross in ash. I’ve always loved the rich imagery and symbolism tied together in this event: the mixture of ash and oil; the tension of (new) life and death; the reminder of our mortal immortality. These are important tensions with which each of us as Christians live. Ash Wednesday speaks to our human existence in a profoundly powerful way: we have it right there on our forehead the reminder of our sin and God’s perfect answer to it.
As a pastor, I get to enter into people’s humanity in a way not everyone does. I experience the joy of a family celebrating God’s work in baptism. I see people’s thankfulness when they come to the Table and are refreshed by Jesus’ body and blood. I sense the conviction and remorse as I place ashes upon my brothers and sisters’ heads. I love that I am welcomed into those intimate moments of people’s journey with God. And yet, in a very real sense, I am able to maintain some distance that is until last night when my two oldest children (4 and 2 years old) came forward on their own and I had to look them in the eyes, speaking these words over them: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In that moment I was overcome by my emotions but at a deeper level had an encounter with God. All the realities of Ash Wednesday came to a head at that moment. The reality that my children are sinners and contend with desires that pull them away from God. The reality that my children have and will face the effects of the fall: hurt, brokenness, despair; the reality of my own children’s mortality. But, inseparable from all of these realities, the greater reality.
Yes, my children (and I) are sinners and face temptation that pulls them away from God; but God’s grace is greater and the Holy Spirit dwelling in them is stronger.
Yes, my children (and I) have and will live with hurt, brokenness, and despair from the fall; but in Christ they have forgiveness and hope.
Yes, my children (and I) are finite and will one day face death; but Christ took our eternal death on Himself and they have the promise of resurrection life.
Last night, Ash Wednesday became real to me in a new way. May we learn to embrace these very real tensions in our lives. Though we have times of doubt and struggle, when our sin threatens to overwhelm us, we have a greater reality in Jesus, one that offers hope, strength, promise, and life.