“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9
My wife and I landed in Quito, Ecuador on a mission trip last fall as the native people were celebrating “Dia de los Muertos”: Day of the Dead. The country kind of comes to a complete halt. From the days of the Catholic Spanish conquerors the pre-Hispanic celebration now coincides with All Souls’ Day (November 1st) and flows over into the days preceding and following. We very much enjoyed the blueberry/blackberry, corn based drink, colada morada, which was everywhere available, and observed a fascinating, some might think macabre, exhibition labeled “Memento Mori,” translated, “remember you must die;” a truth certainly prominent in the Scriptures. After Adam and Eve brought about the fall into sin of the entire human race, God tells Adam, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) The familiar words of the Common Book of Prayer for funeral services is derived from God’s words in the committal of the body to the grave, “…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” Wise King Solomon wrote, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) And the writer of Hebrews declared, “It is appointed unto man once to die and after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
Ashes and dust certainly symbolize the mortality of our bodies and what happens to them in the grave; and these same elements, dust and ashes, were utilized by those in the Bible who came to the realization that they, above all else, were sinners. Job is one among many souls sprinkled throughout the Scriptures who both said and did the following: “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The use of dust and ashes and sackcloth signified a grieving, repentant heart, but it also graphically alluded to the certain condition and consequence of sin: death and rot!
Yesterday, February 17, was Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent, leading up to Holy Week, our Lord’s last week in Jerusalem before his crucifixion, including Palm Sunday, Passover, and Good Friday. It all culminates in the celebration and joy of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday, like Lent is never mentioned in the Scripture, nor commanded by God, but the truths to which it points are truths intended to lead us to a greater knowledge of God and of ourselves, and to lead us to the Savior who alone redeems us from our miserable condition. Ash Wednesday is observed in the rubbing of ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead making a public statement quite opposite of cosmetics. Make-up is applied to beautify the face, cover blemishes, add color, and show us at our best. On the other hand, ashes on the forehead are a visible mark intended to declare the true nature of our heart, which cannot always be seen by others. As our text says, the heart can be cunningly deceptive to the world. This mark of ashes says rather that I am a sinner, and I abhor my sin. It is as if I am joining together with Job and the saints of Scripture, “I desire repentance in my life; therefore I repent in dust and ashes.” Now, not all who participate may genuinely be expressing such faith by this observance, but that is true of any of the outward manifestations and rituals of our faith. There are always pretenders. But such should not detract from the serious penitent desiring to display his or her love for their Savior and His work.
C.S. Lewis was drawn to the writings of Alexander Whyte the 19th century Scottish minister because he said “he brought me violently face to face with a characteristic of Biblical Christianity which I had almost forgotten: For him, one essential symptom of the regenerate life is a permanent, and permanently horrified, perception of one’s natural and (it seems) unalterable corruption. The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner cesspool.” This is at the heart of the use of ashes and use of the season of Lent to say to myself and the world, “I remember who I am, and I remember Whose I am, and I repent in dust and ashes. Lord, make me clean.”
“Broken, humbled to the dust by thy wrath and judgment just, let my contrite heart rejoice and in gladness hear thy voice; from my sins O hide thy face, blot them out in boundless grace.”
“Sinners then shall learn from me and return, O God, to thee; Savior, all my guilt remove, and my tongue shall sing thy love; touch my silent lips. O Lord, and my mouth shall praise accord.”
(4th and 6th verses of the Psalter version of Psalm 51:1-15, The Psalter, 1912)
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