The Old Testament tells of a ritual in which persons in great sorrow sat in ashes or poured them on their head. Since early medieval times, ashes were distributed on the fortieth day before Easter as a sign of individual and communal penitence, and at the Synod of Benevento in 1091, the ritual was recommended for all Western Christians. The twin emphases of the day are sin and death: in sorrow for sin, we join with ancient peoples to put ashes on our head; and in honesty about death, we remember that, like Adam, we are made of dust and will return to dust. Acknowledging our sin and death readies the assembly for its annual baptismal journey to the resurrection.
Critics of Christianity often point out that Christians are hypocrites. Christians publicly espouse a certain set of rules for living—including care for creation, serving God and neighbors in need, and loving our enemies—and, just as publicly, fail to live up to those rules every day and in every way.
Paul, goes to great length to remind us that we, in our human nature, are death warmed over and this can lead to nothing but dust and death. Then we become ready to learn that in this dust is precisely where God meets us and gives us life and salvation in his Son. So the life of Adam (our flesh) is destined for death, but also our Life in Christ, will bring us to a new life with God that is more like the life Jesus lives with God, (I Cor. 15:35-56; 2 Cor. 3-4; Galatians 2:14-21)
In today’s gospel we hear about fasting cheerfully and praying in secret. And yet, as we leave the church building we bear a public and very noticeable sign of faith right on our foreheads. We know we are dust and the glory that we seek is not our own glory, but the gift that comes from God in the life of Jesus Christ. We see these two realities present in the ash of the cross and the death of Jesus on the cross and there we proclaim that we seek the life that God gives in resurrection and new life, like the life of the Risen Christ. Lent begins with a bold, visible, unmistakable reminder of who we are: simultaneously mortal dust and baptized children of God. We are simultaneously saint and sinner. At the same moment that we are ash and dust we also earnestly seek the Risen Life of Christ among us.
Join us for a journey of faith through Lent we are calling, “Lenten Journeying.” Click HERE to see the ideas we have shared to help you think about Lenten activities you might like to try.