Everything we do today as part of our Ash Wednesday worship goes to a single purpose: reminding us of our mortality. The sight of the ashes we use, the smell of the ashes as you draw near to the altar, the grittiness we feel as they are applied to our foreheads, the words we hear as they are applied--all of this serves to remind us that we are but mortal flesh that will one day die a bodily death lest Christ return before that day.
The words we use and hear today during the imposition of ashes, which come from Genesis 3 as part of God's curse after the Fall, take us directly to the historic Anglican graveside funeral service--a rite which has influenced most of Western Christianity. By design, the words we hear this morning are strikingly similar to those we've heard countless times at funerals and which will one day be spoken over our own bodies as they are lowered into the ground.
If these were the final words to describe the Christian's life, it would be a pretty miserable and somber existence. But these ashes and these words are NOT the final word. The final word on sin, death, and the grave comes to us in 40 days on Easter Sunday where the risen Christ proclaims to these, "You don't win. I am victorious over you."
Looking forward to that final word, God comes to us today for us to acknowledge that we are sinners in need of mercy and grace who repent and believe in his son, whom he has sent for us.
From that word comes the call to a changed and transformed life--a a life shaped in the way of the cross, which flies in the face of everything our culture celebrates and acknowledges as good. The way of the cross lives selflessly in the midst of an entirely self-centered world. A quick glance at your social media accounts after our time together reinforces how inwardly turned we are! The way of the cross lives a life characterized by good works and loving our neighbors as God has loved us, not merely to get or even anticipating anything in return. The way of the cross encourages a simple, quiet faith lived out in a world characterized by noise, busyness, and chaos.
But the way of the cross is a life we fail to live out, daily. But God in his great mercy gives us a "do over" every year. That holy do over is Lent. For in Lent we are challenged to slow down and reconnect to God through spiritual disciplines, to reconnect to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to reconnect to all those around us made in the image and likeness of God. It is a season in which to be deliberate and intentional.
Today we will go so far with our intentionality that we literally mark ourselves with a reminder of our mortality (ashes) that is simultaneously a reminder of Christ's ultimate victory (in the shape of a cross) and our immortality in him.
Today we stop at the language of ashes, dust, and death. The 'rest of the story,' awaits Easter Sunday. The rest of story awaits our own committals, where those gathered around us will hear the good news that we are laid to rest in the ground, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body, by the power than enables Him to subject all things to Himself."