When Lisa and I were first married, we lived in this sweet little bungalow that was completely heated by an old barrel wood stove in the basement. And whereas today I can assure you that I much appreciate the luxury of a gas furnace and a thermostat, I also have to tell you that in those days I did kind of enjoy having wood heat. Of course, I did learn the truth in that maxim that wood heat warms you twice: first, when you cut and stack it, and later when you actually burn it! And we learned early on that you can’t go too far from home on a cold winter night without someone there to stoke the fire. But it was a good heat: we were never cold; there was always this comforting rumble in the night as the wood snapped and burned; and there was the added benefit that whenever Lisa and I had one of those lover’s spats that newlyweds always seem to have, I could go down and chop kindling with reckless abandon until the moment passed!
One of things I remember most about burning wood, however, is how often I would have to empty out the ashes from the stove. I had this great big old metal bucket and a small iron-handled shovel, and every four or five days during the winter I’d have to go down to the cellar, fill up the bucket with ash and embers from the bottom of the wood stove, and haul it out to the backyard, where I’d dump it out on a garden plot that was out there. I always figured there was some appropriateness about that; after all, the cord of wood I’d burned that winter that had come from trees grown in Northern Maine soil, and now their ashes were being returned to that same soil, where come springtime something new and fresh would most certainly grow: my own personal example of the “circle of life!”
Ever the pastor, however, it also would put me in mind of the words of committal that you sometimes hear at a graveside funeral service: “We commit this body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Biblically speaking, those words have their source in Genesis, when first God forms man “from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” so that the man “became a living being;”(2:7) and when later on, after the fall, God says to Adam and Eve, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (3:19)
It’s all pretty discouraging when you think about it; certainly we’d like to think of our lives as amounting to even a bit more just so much dust and ash! But there we are: as the Psalmist says, we are mortals whose days are like grass; people who flourish like flowers of the field, but who are gone as quickly as the wind passes over. It’s a stark reminder that in the end, all our eloquent words and good deeds will ultimately pass away. All of our virtue and all of our efforts toward righteousness end up little more than an empty endeavor, because eventually, we’ll all return to the dust; buried and forgotten.
So if that’s the case, then why do we bother coming here today? What’s the point? And why do we gather for something called “Ash Wednesday?” Isn’t that simply belaboring the obvious?
Well, the answer is that it’s not as obvious as all that: for while we do come here to remember, in all humility, who and what we are, more importantly we come to remember who God is, and what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. The good news is that even though “we are dust, and to dust we will return,” God loves us. In fact, through the cross of Jesus Christ, God has placed a sign of infinite value upon us. God has chosen us for a better life than that which leads to the dust heap and the ash bin: God has chosen for us a life that is both abundant and eternal. And all God asks in return is to accept his mercy, remember that we are sinners, and repent and believe in his Son Jesus Christ.
We are called to practice a piety that is not based on our own self-aggrandizement or the hope of human praise or reward – for all those things are worthless in the end, and they do pass away – but rather we are called to a righteousness based on God’s infinite goodness. In other words, God commits to us and it falls to you and me to commit ourselves to God and walk in the way of Christ, which is the way of the cross.
Friends, this is what the season of Lent – our shared journey to the cross – is all about. And this is why it’s fitting we come together for this “solemn assembly” on Ash Wednesday; for if we’re to take this journey to the cross as persons and a people of God, it’s best we start out knowing exactly who and what we are. It’s not a bad thing to remember that both at the beginning and at the end, we’re dust and ash; and nothing more. But it’s also good for us to remember that in the funeral liturgy I spoke of earlier, after we say “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we go on to say that we are “trusting in God’s great mercy by which we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
We are dust, friends. We are ashes. But in Christ Jesus, we are more than that… much more!
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry