An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

Today is a day known as Ash Wednesday in the Christian Church. It is the first day of the season of Lent, a 40-day journey to Easter (Sundays count as “mini-Easters” and are not included in the count). You may see people with a smear of ash on their foreheads. I promise, at one point, their pastor at least tried to make it look like a cross. It’s not as easy as you would think.

In my church, it also marks the beginning of a 95-day reading plan during which we will work our way through the entire New Testament together. We are calling it “Ashes to Fire” because it runs from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost Sunday (when the Holy Spirit appeared on the first believers as “tongues of fire” in Acts 2).

I’m sharing here what I’ll be preaching at tonight’s service because I think it is an important message for us to consider as we enter this special season in the Christian year.

If you are reading this, and you aren’t a Christian, you are still welcome. I hope it represents the best of what we should be, but have often failed.

As we have been coming up on this season of Lent, and the beginning of our New Testament reading challenge, an image keeps coming into my mind. It is the image of the Phoenix.

From skylarvision on Pixabay

According to the mythology, the Phoenix is a bird with a long lifespan (some say between 500–1000 years). When it comes to the end of its life, the Phoenix, as the story goes, bursts into flames, turning into a pile of ash.

But from the ashes it is reborn.

The Phoenix is an incredible symbol of hope. It represents hope in the face of destruction, and points to the triumph of life in times of darkness.

There are many variations of the story, but the essential components remain — from the ashes, there is rebirth.

Ashes to Fire is what we have named our reading challenge, and it will be our focus for the next several weeks. Tonight, we begin with the Ashes, and as we progress over the next couple of months, I hope that intentionally spending time in the Word will ignite a Fire within your soul.

To begin, I want to look at tonight’s readings from the book of Genesis.

[5] When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, [6] and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground — [7] then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Genesis 2: 5–7, ESV)

[17] And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; [18] thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. [19] By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17–19, ESV)

As I reflected on what rebirth means for us in the Church — as we go from Ashes to Fire — I began to consider the words that you see in those Scripture readings.

You are dust and to the dust you will return.

If we’re really honest with ourselves, it seems kind of morbid, doesn’t it? But perhaps it would do us well to reflect on our own mortality from time to time. After all, if there’s one certainty in life, it’s that life ends; and, given enough time, our bodies will return to their original state.

For you are dust and to the dust you will return.

Those are the words the Lord speaks to Adam in Genesis 3:19, and it forms the back end of a bookend in the opening chapters of Genesis, where we find the creation stories.

The story that starts in Genesis 2:4 and run to the end of Genesis 3 is where we find this language of dust. And it’s not all morbid. In fact, the first time the dust is mentioned we get this beautiful image of God creating the man. (Sorry, ladies, not trying to be sexist here, that’s just how the story goes!)

We are told that God formed man from the dust. But, notice, the formation from the dust is not the beginning of the man’s life. The creation is not complete until God breathes into the dust. That’s when the man is formed. Life comes from the breath of God.

Now, here’s the thing about these opening chapters of Genesis. People have been arguing for centuries about how to interpret what is going on here. Is this intended to be a literal rendition of what happened at the beginning of time? Or this this a story that is meant to describe something bigger? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. (But I tend to lean towards the latter.)

Whether it is a literal retelling of the beginning of creation, or if it is meant to be purely symbolic, what is important about this part of the creation story is the fact that God created. God formed. And God gave life.

It is meant to give us a proper perspective on our own lives. We did not create ourselves. Our life, our truest life, is found in the actions that God takes. Not by our own doing. And so, as we enter into this season of Lent, it is all the more important that we maintain a proper perspective of who we are.

You are dust, and to the dust you will return.

Lent is a season of preparation for the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a time of repentance and redemption. It is a time for us to reflect on who we are, who we have become, and who God is calling us to be.

Yes, it starts with ashes. It starts with a reminder of our humble beginnings. It starts with us needing to take a hard and honest look at ourselves. To admit that we don’t have it all together. To admit that we have fallen short in our lives. To come face to face with our sin, and truly be repentant. That’s what the ashes are about.

In ancient times, people who were truly in sorrow for their sins would dress in sackcloth and cover themselves with ashes. We see this in the story of Jonah with the people of Nineveh. The entire city repents of its sin. Even the cows are covered in sackcloth! I don’t know what those cows did, but they were certainly sorry about it!

We, too, put on the ashes as a sign of repentance. We have to start the journey this way because if we don’t, we aren’t being completely honest with ourselves. But, take heart, because this is just the beginning of the journey.

As we go through this season of Lent together, as a congregation, we are going to prepare ourselves for the full revelation of Jesus Christ. There are so many misconceptions about who Jesus is. If you listen to some people talk about Jesus, you would think he’s a wizard. Others would make you think that Jesus is nothing more than a good ethics teacher.

Even his disciples had their own ideas about who Jesus was — they all believed he was some kind of prophet, even the Messiah (or Christ, in the Greek); however, what that meant for them was completely different from what it actually meant. That should give us some measure of comfort — even the ones who were closest to him got it wrong.

We come in with so many of our own understandings, interpretations, and, frankly, desires about who we want Jesus to be that we fail to actually listen to what he is saying.

After all, how many times does Jesus tell his disciples that he is going to be handed over, unjustly convicted, and killed? But, for some reason, it’s like they don’t hear him, or don’t believe him when he says it.

He also tells them that he will rise again after three days. And yet, they are in utter despair when he dies, and don’t believe it when the first reports of an empty tomb come in. They had their own understandings of Jesus, understandings that caused them to miss out on some important truths along the way.

We, too, have our misunderstandings of Jesus. And that is a big reason why we need to spend some time in the Gospels. In fact, until Easter, our reading plan is only going to have us in the Gospels.

During this season of Lent, we will be reading the four stories of Jesus as written by the gospel writers. Let me encourage you to come to those words with a clean slate. Allow them to shape your understanding of Jesus, and not the other way around.

There’s a reason why we begin Lent with Ash Wednesday. It’s so that we can remind ourselves of our humble beginnings.

You are dust, and to the dust you will return.

It’s so that we can repent; so we can turn away from the falsehoods of this life and prepare ourselves for something more. When we clear the clutter of our lives, we free ourselves to go down the path of obedience. And that is, perhaps, the biggest hurdle we have to overcome.

When we talk about obedience, we immediately want to turn up our noses at the idea. There’s something off-putting about that word. “Obedience.” It’s like we don’t get to have control over some aspect of our lives, and we don’t like that idea. We like to think that we can control our lives.

But Lent is a reminder that it’s not about us.

You are dust, and to the dust you will return.

We have no control over either of those circumstances.

As we go through this Lenten season and through the season of Easter afterwards, let us remember that it is not about us. We are we but dust? And to the dust we will return.

With this perspective, let us seek out God’s direction; not only for ourselves, but for our congregation as well. That we may be set free from the desire to control every aspect of our lives, and be able to turn to God. May this season prepare us for where God will lead.

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Matt Swisher

Matt Swisher

Just some guy who is looking to make my pocket of the world a better place. Life is a journey; let’s walk together and help each other along the way.