Today begins another season of Lent, a discipline the Christian Church has been observing for approximately 1700 years. You may want to read my previous postings on its personal specifics (Ash Wednesday 2006) or its symbolism (Ash Wednesday ). This year, for our Lenten observance, we will explore what is for many of us the mystifyingly deep waters of love. Today, for Ash Wednesday, we will focus on how that applies to this specific feast day and the beginning of our effort.
You will probably ask me how the powerful words that are said over you when the ashes are applied, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. are related to love, especially when the dominate symbolism of Ash Wednesday argues that death is always close at hand and in the end we all return to the ground from which we were taken, to dust.
The original statement that is echoed in services around the world today came from Genesis:
…till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19b
These are the words spoken by God to Adam as our creator was handing down his judgment on mankind. Adam and Eve were about to be driven from the Garden, away from the Tree of Eternal Life and consigned to die, to return to the ground from which Adam had been fashioned.
This is an unspeakable tragedy and it subjected the whole of creation to ongoing futility (Romans 8:20-23), yet at the same time it was also the greatest gift and an act of undying love. Let me explain.
We are not the only ones who rebelled against God. Satan, and the angels who joined him, also mutinied against the authority of the creator. However, Scripture offers no hope for their redemption. In Faust, the German tale of soul-selling, the demon/fallen angel Mephistopheles laments that he cannot be redeemed or even muster the desire for it. The mere thought of it is only a dim echo rising out of a gaping hole in his being.
Human beings, on the other hand, are redeemable and our Federal parents had not even left the Garden before God promised them redemption. He told them that this hope of life would be found in the seed of our mother, Eve. But, to be redeemed, there would be a difficult requirement: we must die. Without death, we cannot be born again. This is the great paradox at the center of our existence and the great mystery that Jesus revealed to Nicodemus in their famous discourse recorded in the third chapter of John’s Gospel.
However, to offer that redemption, the debt of our sin needed to be paid. We could not do it. That which is irretrievably broken cannot fix itself. Therefore, God had to take upon himself to satisfy the debt that we had incurred and could not pay. In his doing, the deep mystery of AGAPE, the eternally sacrificial love of God, would find its holiest expression in the cross of Jesus Christ, the Son, the Sacrificial Lamb for the first, and all the sins of men.
So without death, there could be no life. It is the dark door through which we must walk. Creation itself mirrors the mystery in the death of a seed and the life that then springs from it, just as Jesus explained to his disciples in John 12:23. So, what Satan meant for our destruction, God has turned to our salvation. Death, our greatest fear became our greatest hope, the key to the lock of our destiny.
Today, when you see those ashes, the burnt residue of what was once life on the foreheads of believers, remember that the black cross marking them as Christ’s own, represents the gateway through which we apprehend our eternal hope.
May God’s grace find you today of all days, and may the promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ dissipate the crushing fear that is wrapped in death, giving you the peace you seek, in the everlasting arms of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.