Dust and Ashes

Today, we embark on a humbling journey, a 40-day pilgrimage. A stark etching of ashes darkens the landscape of our skin, severe and cross-shaped. Those ashen smears tell a tale of tragedy. A burnt soot reminds us of life once lived, but now lost, affixed to our flesh in gloomy shades of charcoal black. Oh, but they bespeak more—of suffering, grief, and our need to confess and repent. So opens this solemn season of Lent with a memento of death etched upon our foreheads.

The Garden of Eden: a perfect place, a paradise God planted for Adam and Eve. The air filled with the enchanting scent of divinity. Lush meadows stretched, and the sun illuminated each blade of grass in golden light. The trees bore life-giving fruit in a never-ending abundance of nourishment. The birds sang angelic songs, and the rivers sparkled with crystal clarity.

In this idyllic garden, the serpent slithers forth and drops a charged question: “Did God say?” Restless, only knowing goodness and bewitched by the deceiver’s tongue, our first parents long to understand evil. Fruit from a forbidden tree beckons and enthralls. The serpent’s whisper of secret knowledge seduces them, and soon their teeth sink into succulent flesh. Sweet at the beginning, its juices turn acrid as they recoil from mortality, burning into their tongues. So deep they fall, succumbing to temptation.

So, the Divine Creator’s words echo from eternity. Man is immortal no more, now a hide-bound creature shackled to time’s unrelenting prison. Life becomes frail and capitulates to the inescapable embrace of death’s demise. A dank chill befalls, for Adam will descend back to the earthen soil from which God formed him—as will we. Misery and suffering are now part of our journey, with ashes co-mingling within the sinful air we breathe.

Raised in a world of smoke and cinder, we repeat God’s words when receiving Lent’s ashes: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust, you shall return!” Stained by the slag and residue from which we are born, we reap the sown seed as sin’s children. King David’s lament still echoes through us today. “Brought forth in iniquity; behold, a sinner when my mother spawned me” (Psalm 51:5).

Lent summons Christians to pause. The season invites you and me to cast off the old fetters of sin, for Christ to clothe us afresh in His garments of grace. Forward we step, for Him to restore us, not cling to the fallen ways of this world. The cross calls us to journey with Jesus to be born anew, to discover in Him the glory of life amid our brokenness, hidden beneath the embers.

Not once or twice, but many times, the Holy Scriptures mention ashes. From Moses, we learn the Lord unleashed His smoldering wrath on Lot’s adopted hometown of Sodom, reduced to smudge and burning remains (Genesis 19). In anguish and humiliation, Job, the paragon of patience (so we often assume), laid himself with dust and ash, a mark of mourning and grief (2:8).

Aghast at the king’s lethal decree, Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, draped himself in soot and sackcloth (Esther 4:1). Later, Jonah proclaimed God’s Word to Nineveh, whose citizens repented by covering themselves with ash before the Lord (Jonah 3:6). Yes, the Scriptures abound with people and places enshrouded in pall and ash.

So, too, did the voices of ancient prophets cry, thundering the Lord’s will and warnings. “O daughter of my people, dress in sackcloth and roll in ashes! Make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation” (Jeremiah 6:26). Old man Ezekiel spoke of cities roiling in remorse and wallowing in sorrow (Ezekiel 26-27). The most Messianic prophet, Isaiah, rebuked Israel for idolatry and false worship, of feeding on nothing but ashes (44:20).

In today’s Gospel, we learn of Jesus mentioning ashes when calling forth someone’s repentance. Did He not beckon the citizens of Corazon, Bethsaida, and Capernaum to wear sackcloth and ashes during their contrition (Matthew 11:21)? So has the Church long-encouraged the faithful to receive ashes, as a sign of humble supplication before God.

Lent presides over us, using the same ancient symbols, a sacred ritual advancing through the ages. From the time before Nineveh, we follow the saints of old in ash-laden repentance, reminding us of our sins. In the shape of an ashen cross, we don the same cloak as Job, distressed by our fallen condition.

Job’s blessings from the Lord super-abounded, graced by the most fortunate of gifts: a faithful wife, seven sturdy sons, and three beloved daughters. God blessed him with abundant wealth, holding sway over vast tracts of fertile land, his bounty bolstered by countless herds of livestock. Many hands attended to his estate, and his life shone forth with a radiant generosity.

In a single day, calamity struck. Misfortune engulfed Job, stripping away his possessions and destroying his home. Despair descended upon his soul as a shroud of anguish enveloped his body. Boils and sores festered and grew, afflicting him from head to heel. Seeking respite from the agony, he scraped his flesh with pottery shards. Desperate to end his misery, Job’s wife forsook him, scorning him to curse God and die (Job 2:9).

No one is exempt from suffering in this broken world, including Christians. St. Paul wrote, “For the sake of Christ, I suffered the loss of everything, and I regard them as rubbish so I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). The Apostle Peter chimes in, “For a season… you suffer grief in various trials to test the genuineness of your faith” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

The heavy load of human suffering vexes every corner of the earth. Sorrows come in different shapes and sizes, from those we inflict upon ourselves to the pains of surviving in a world marred by iniquity. Nobody can ignore the hurt so often part of our experience, for wherever sin is, death follows.

Too soon, our days slide away, increasing at an alarming pace. Pain seeps into our souls as beloved family members die before us, as we sit in sorrow, helpless as Job in his ashes. The way forward is to repent, acknowledging before God, who holds our lives in His hands, that our fall into sin brought death, darkness, and discord into our world. Turning toward God, we realize our salvation comes only from Him. So, repentance shifts our perspective, reminding us every blessing we enjoy is a gift from God’s bountiful hand.

Ashes are the ending chapter in the life story of wood. Earlier, a towering testament of strength and majesty, the grandest tree is no more. Its grandeur, cupped by hands, holding its cinders in a palmful of dust. So with Christ Jesus and His crucifixion on the splintered wood, alive no more.

But with Jesus, the story continues. From the ashes of the cursed tree, Jesus arose in triumph. Victory over death brings hope and a new life. Despite our grief and mourning, we can celebrate a promised reality beyond this world. Why?

The Spirit, whom our Savior sent, works through the water and Word to bury us with Christ “by baptism into death.” Except, your baptismal waters more than embody you in the burial shroud of Christ’s ashes, where everything is shadow and stifling darkness. Now, “as Christ rose from death… [you] too can walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Your Lord will raise you from ash and grave into eternal glory.

At Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus approached a weeping Martha. In gentle words, He lifted death’s cloak from her shoulders, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, though he dies, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). This, Jesus does for us, piercing through our gloom. Garbed in perpetual death no more, Christ clothes us in His love and life.

After enduring ashes and cross, Job’s despair turned to hope as God lifted him from his suffering. Today, God’s Son, Jesus, brings us this same grace and mercy. Our darkest moments fade, and our confidence for a dazzling future shine, raising us with renewed purpose. Crucifixion Friday is approaching, recalling Christ’s gracious act, who took our smoldering sins and carried them to the killing wood. Into death’s tomb, He buried our sinful baggage, now forever gone.

Again, from St. Paul: “[God] made the sinless One to be sin so, in Him, we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Friday turns into Sunday in an Easter promise—God resurrects the dead. The sweet sound of resurrection rings out in triumph. Hope and joy resound because God raised His own Son, Jesus Christ, from death’s tomb.

Today, we still sit in our sinful dusty ruins, shrouded in sorrow. Heavy though our hearts be, we ponder and repent, gazing beyond our ashes for the redemption awaiting us. By Christ’s risen Word, the gloom of our despair shall disappear in everlasting light and the bitterness of our death into eternal life. Death itself must kneel before the resurrection.

In the end, Job’s dust and soot, his deepest darkness, his despairing cries echoing through the valley will not clothe you. The melancholy night will give way to eternity’s splendor as resurrection’s promise rises before you. Transformed into joy, you’re now holy and bright, washed clean by the blood of the resurrected Lamb, Jesus Christ!

Remember, you can’t create these eternal joys. In Jesus, grace from God embraces you, exalting you in His honor and glory. Through Word and Sacrament, God’s Spirit covers you in Christ. Yes, He keeps you close since God “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap” (1 Samuel 2:8). God will give you “a crown instead of ashes, the oil of gladness, not grief” (Isaiah 61:3). In Jesus, you are secure, both now and evermore! Amen.

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