Ashes: a Message of Death and Life

Feb 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday
Text: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and Psalm 51:1-12
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     It’s an Ash Wednesday Valentine’s Day, which seems to be an oxymoron (a combining of contradictory terms) except that the word “Lent” is right there is the middled of valentine. So, I brought a Valentine’s Day box in which there are some Valentine Day treasures – pink and red socks that say, “Be Mine”, a bag of foil-wrapped chocolate hearts and a few message hearts which say, “DM Me”, and “Let’s Hang” (these are evidently up-to-date hearts). There’s also one that says Love” and “XOXO”. Given the day, there should be one that says, “Remember UR Dust.”
     What? That doesn’t seem like a cheerful Valentine’s Day message, since it’s a reminder of our mortality. What’s loving about that on this day of love? And, why would people want to be reminded of their dustiness?
     Chaplain Rachel Rim asked herself that question when she realized that Ash Wednesday was the busiest day of the year for the Spiritual Care Department at the Medical Center where she was a Christian chaplain. Staff, patients and visitors wanted to receive, in fact were lining up to receive, the cross of ashes and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
     She was shocked, she wrote in a recent edition of Christian Century, at the genuine gratitude and peace they seemed to feel upon receiving them. How odd it seemed that they were grateful to have a stranger remind them that they would one day die, in a place where the focus was on that not happening. And then she came to this conclusion; because she too wore the cross of ashes – as did many who she passed in the hallways – it was as if everyone was acknowledging the universal human condition.
     Human beings cannot be cured of our mortal diagnosis. We are all called to join Jesus in his death and resurrection. Let me quote Chaplin Rim, “Perhaps by administering ashes to these doctors and nurses, I was helping remind them of that truth, freeing them even a little from the enormous pressure that they carry. Their jobs are not to cure but to care, not to fix but to heal, until the inevitable and universal healing of our bodies comes in the form of the death we will all one day face.” (1)
     “The inevitable and universal healing of our bodies”, that’s a beautiful concept. On this day we remind ourselves of that message of love, and we ask for help as we live in the time in-between. That is, after all, what repentance and forgiveness is – the assistance we need to be who God created us to be until we are fully who God created us to be.
     So on this day we hear the plea of the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” and the cry of the Prophet, “…rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
     This act of returning is an “inside task.” To return is to change direction; it requires letting go of those things that get in the way of our relationship with God and with others and requires trusting that God will receive us.
     In an Ash Wednesday sermon, Pastor Elizabeth Lovell Milford suggest that we might let go of:
  • “Those things in your life that you would like to change, but need help to make it happen.
  • “Those things that just aren’t working for you to grow in the ways you know God is calling you to (grow).
  • “Those things you wish you hadn’t bought into and would like to give up.
  • “Those things you simply have too much of and don’t really need.” (2)
    Giving consideration to these options, and other ways we should “let go” is certainly a good way to use these 40 days we call Lent. In the process of doing so, we strive to return to God, that is to draw closer, to close the distance between ourselves and the Divine.
     As we come together today and publicly renounce our sin, we are expressing our confidence in God’s mercy. The cross of ashes reminds of us not one, but two truths – death and life. Yes, we are dust, and to dust we call return. But, we also are reminded that “if we have been united with him (Jesus) in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” What better message of love for Valentine’s Day, or any day, can there be than that?
  1. “We Are All Going to Die” by Rachel Rim, The Christian Century, February 2024, pgs. 73
  2. “God’s Return Policy” by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, February 14, 2018, Heritage Presbyterian Church