By Cambria Stame
“Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Today, your pastor will speak these words to you as he traces the sign of the holy cross in ashes upon your forehead as a reminder of your hopeless mortality. There seems to be no hope in death, only an inconsolable, desperate, miserable grief that will forever hold your soul in thrall. In death, your life is reduced to ashes. Fallen captive to the passions and pleasures of the world, you succumbed to that which strangles the souls of men. Lust, pride, envy, worry, bloodshed—these things you carried on your back as you collapsed back into the earth. Your epitaph is hardly worth reading. Your life amounts to no more than a handful of dust. You will surely die. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
But if Scripture has taught us anything, it has taught us that God raises dead men back to life. He breathed life into a valley of dry bones. He raised a little girl whose father was sick with grief. To the amazement of Mary and Martha, he restored Lazarus back to life after four days in the tomb. These resurrections, and all others recorded in Scripture, are woven into the fabric of the cross. For God in the flesh was lifted up, that you might be lifted up out of the ashes.
Hear how Christ has conquered death for you, “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Thus, these Lenten ashes are not so morbid as one might originally suppose. The ashen token is a memento mori, for it gives you a cause to remember death, not that you may fear its impending gloom, but that you may remember the one who caused Death to die. It is a reminder that sin surely demands your life, but that God demanded it back in your Baptism. When you were plunged into the font where Word and water collide, you died and were made alive again; you were lost, and was found. As Christ is risen, you have risen indeed.
Embrace your Lenten ashes. Fix your eyes upon these crosses that adorn the foreheads of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Rejoice and be glad, for death has no sting and hell holds you captive no longer. You, like the noble phoenix, arise from your ashy chamber. As the phoenix issues forth from the dust in a flurry of fire, you are reborn from an equally mighty act of nature: a baptismal flood. Resplendent in all his resurrection glory, the phoenix is colored crimson, and you are too, by the blood of your crucified and risen Lord.
The first time I attended a Lutheran church, I did so on Ash Wednesday twelve years ago. While the “smells and bells” of the liturgy certainly impacted me, what stood out to me the most was the way Scripture, quite literally, touched me. My pastor, like all other men of the cloth, used his hands to baptize, bless, and embrace—his hands are vessels of the life God gives us. Yet, he is equally as acquainted with death as he is with life. Pastor now dipped his hands into ashes, into filth, into grime, into death—as Christ did. He cupped my chin, looked me in the eyes, and pronounced me dead. Brushing ashes onto my forehead, he supplied the vector that pointed me back to my Baptism. Like the host of saints who had gone before me, I too was made alive again as Christ knelt down and mixed water in with the dust. Christ applied this ointment to give me seeing eyes of faith, saying as he always does, “Arise, to life be reconciled.” Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, remember that you are dust, and lend your ears to this baptismal requiem: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” A blessed Ash Wednesday to all of you.
Cambria Stame is a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Danville, California.