As is tradition in our parish, last night we held Ash Wednesday worship service. Part of this service, of course, includes the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the penitent. By the end of the liturgy, one thing jumped out to me:
Sin and death are messy. Literally.
As I struggled last night to move back and forth between hymnal, liturgy, and Bible with filthy fingers I couldn't help but notice how the dirtiness and dustiness of the ashes affected everything I touched. By the end of the service there was ash everywhere--on my hands, on my Bible, on my hymnal, on my liturgy, on my vestments, on my own forehead, and in my eyes. Nothing I handled stayed clean.
It was a picture, a metaphor, an example. Sin and death act exactly like those ashes. They affect everything. Nothing stays the same. Nothing stays clean. Nothing stays unchanged. No matter how hard we try to keep our sins hidden--exactly like the ashes which started only on my thumb and were soon everywhere--the effects of sin soon spread until everything is tainted. It is impossible to keep sin separate from the rest of who we are and the rest of what we do. It gets everywhere. It's a mess.
And from that sin comes death. Death affects everyone near it. No matter how we try to console ourselves, the act of death and dying is not beautiful or natural or good. It is a curse, and it feels like a curse. There is no doubt that those saints dying in the faith are better off in the presence of Christ, but dying itself is a mess.
Thanks be to God there is more to this story than sin and death!
When the service was over, and I was able to retreat to the sacristy, I headed straight for the sink. There I noticed how easily water--plain water--washed away all the dust and ash. I didn't need to scrub. I didn't need exert any effort. I only needed to let the water do its thing and wash away the stain. In a moment, it was as if my hands were never tainted.
Another picture, this time of baptism. In the font, where the Word of God joins the water and washes our sins away. Just as water washes away dust and dirt, the waters of baptism remove our sin and the righteousness of Christ Jesus makes us spotless. In baptism, we put forth no effort. In baptism, we do no work. By faith in the promise of God, we let the His holy water do its thing and wash away the stain. And in a moment, it was as if our souls were never tainted.
Those pictures of sin and salvation made quite an impact on me last night. In those earthy elements of creation, in ashes and water, a glorious picture of the grace, mercy, and work of God became crystal clear. May that picture never fade.