Ash Wednesday: to dust you shall return

Preaching text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

OK, you know how I labelled this as a lectionary-based series? Well, for Ash Wednesday, I’m going to suggest that you preach about the liturgy rather than the texts, thus breaking that premise.

As the start of a series about promises, the irony of this is not lost on me.

But here’s the thing about Ash Wednesday: people associate this liturgy with getting ashes traced on their foreheads. That simple liturgical gesture packs more freight in people’s understanding of what this day—and this whole season—is about than any of the individual readings do. My proof is this: the gospel prescribed for this day—Jesus warning against practicing our piety in order to be seen—is in direct conflict with walking around with a big ol’ ashy cross on your forehead, and I have only EVER had ONE person at an Ash Wednesday service decide NOT to receive ashes because of it.

So why not use ashes as the way into your sermon?**

Preach about the promise behind the ashes. It’s a simple one: “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” The promise of Ash Wednesday is that one day, we will die.

I know that this promise doesn’t sound like particularly good news. Well, it’s NOT. But it is our birthright. The promise of death is the first we receive, the one that’s ours as soon as we take our first breath. It’s also the promise that necessitates every other one of God’s promises that we’ll encounter in the Lenten journey.

**Oh, that’s right, because COVID. You and your community may be choosing to forgo ashes and the close contact they require this year, and applaud your conscientiousness. But I’ll stand by this post as offering a decent entry point: if ashes are conspicuously absent from your Ash Wednesday liturgy, address elephant in the room and preach about what the ashes point us toward!

Mortality lands urgency to our human task of discerning what makes life meaningful. Jesus’ words at in the gospel reading point us toward that truth: “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moths and rust consume and thieves break in and steal,” he advises, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. …For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

In other words, the very inevitability of our death urges us to reach beyond it. This has been the human proclivity for time out of mind: to resist the awful promise of death by becoming part of something undying.

This is one of the primary differences between God and us, one of the first ways we understand what it means to be God when we’re children: we die, but God never does.

Unless…you happen to be Christian.

Christians do something really nutty.

We worship a God who dies.

This is the great plot twist that Lent is leading us toward: the power of the God we worship isn’t located God’s deathlessness, but in God’s death. The second person of the Godhead goes to the cross and dies there. And it’s there, on the cross, where the life of the Son of God ebbs away, that we see God’s power most fully revealed in vulnerability.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” asks the poet Mary Oliver. “What will you do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Annually, Ash Wednesday invites us to answer the question. It confronts us with the undeniability of our own ending.  It assures us that one day we will return to dust. And it draws the truth of it on our foreheads in the shape of God’s own death.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

On Ash Wednesday, we receive the promise of our own death. But within that promise, we hear the echo of another, a crack in the unrelenting edifice of our mortality, the sound of a breaking tomb. God’s action has taken away the sting of death. Yes, we will die, but death no longer gets the last word. Yes, we will die, but in the meantime, we are alive.

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

Published by Barn Geese

Honk if you love Jesus.

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