Ash Wednesday is intended to be a time where we consider our sin, and the frailty of our existence. In Genesis 3:19, we read God’s description to Adam of the consequences of his sin: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When we think of dust, or ashes, these things tend to carry a somber meaning. There is a sorrow that I associate with ashes. Growing up, I remember when the house of one of my friends burned down. All that was left was a crumbling foundation and the ashen remains on top. I would walk by this scene often on my way into town… it was erie and sad. What that place had been intended for (life, place, meaning) was no more… just a pile of ash.
However, there can be hope associated with ashes too… there is new life that can come out of what went so wrong. After a forest fire, which devastates the surrounding landscape, the seedlings of certain trees spring to life as the heat from the fire releases the seeds of pinecones. Even with those who go through the devastation of a house fire… this kind of event will often awaken in someone what’s most important in life, where all the minor inconveniences and difficulties of every-day life become trivial. And in the case of my friend, I saw the surrounding community spring into action to provide for and take care of his family.
It’s similar with repentance in the life of a believer: there is both sorrow over sin, but also new life that comes from a renewed understanding what and Who is most important in life. In Psalm 51, after a year of numbness towards his sin of adultery with Bathsheba, and the murder of her husband, David reached a place of deep sorrow and brokenness over his sin… a place of repentance in which we see a sincere and emotional confession of his sin:
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right[b] spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Notice in verse four, David expresses his recognition of what is most precious to him: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” He was not dismissing the fact that he had sinned against and hurt others through his sin, but rather he had come to the end of himself, and in his brokenness he had rediscovered the One in whom he said elsewhere, “In your presence is fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Ps. 16:11) Through his repentance and confession, new life was breathed back into his relationship with God.
Perhaps you’ll be attending the Ash Wednesday open house this year. As you consider these ashes, contemplate the graveness of your sin and its consequences… the frailty of your humanity… that we came from dust, and to dust we shall return. And also consider the mercy of God in the form of the ashen cross… the new life that was made possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
May this start to the traditional Lenten season fix your gaze anew on the One who brought eternal life to his creatures, who were but dust!