Today, Christians around the world will go to their churches and let their clergy smear the ashes of burnt palm fronds on their foreheads while reminding each of them: “You are but dust and to dust you shall return.” It is a peculiar ceremony, to say the least! This stark reminder of our mortality flies in the face of an antiseptic culture that would rather us not think about such things. Even when we do talk about death we’ve come to speak of it on different terms – we no longer die, but “transition” to a new stage of life. Christians, of course, aren’t immune from this mortality-phobia either! We’d still much prefer to celebrate the life lived or focus on the life to come rather than acknowledge and mourn the reality of death and the grave. Thus, to take time out of this week to go to a service whose primary purpose is to remind us of our impending death is a bit unusual. Nevertheless, to fully grasp our mortality is an essential part of knowing Christ.
The Curse Of Fallen Man
The purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind the people of God of their status under the curse. While receiving ashes, we hear the word of God to fallen Adam in Genesis 3:19, reminding us of our ultimate destiny as fallen men and women. Because we have rebelled against God, we are sentenced to death, returning to the very dust from which we have been created. The difficult reminder of Ash Wednesday is that this is true no matter what you believe. The most faithful Christian and the most secular atheist will come to the same end on this earth – from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust. It is the curse of fallen man from which no one escapes.
However, Christians recognize that alongside the curse comes the promise – that the offspring of the woman will bruise the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). While it’s a difficult reality that the dust of the earth remains our fate, we can rejoice that, through Christ, it is not our ultimate destiny. When we are buried, we are buried with Christ (he, too, went to dust). But, by virtue of our union with him in death, we are also united with him in resurrection so that we may joyfully proclaim “O’ death where is your victory? O’ death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54b-55).
Seeds Of Hope In Times Of Difficulty
In light of this, Ash Wednesday and the penitential season of Lent are actually seeds of hope sown into the difficult reality of life. It reminds us of our helplessness under the curse in such a way that allows us to grasp more fully the extent of Christ’s love for sinners. It’s not the ashes that matter, nor the fasting or the intentional prayer of the Lenten season – all of these bring us closer to God only when they remind us of the curse under which we are sentenced. From this humble posture, we are able to lift our eyes to Jesus hanging on a tree, knowing that the curse he bears is ours and the salvation he offers is sealed by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:13).