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 alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my 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 crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and lot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
For the last thousand years, these words have been traditionally used for this particular day. A priest or pastor will place a finger in the ashes, making the sign of the cross on a forehead, while whispering the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
These are frightening words. We have gathered today to be reminded of our own finitude, to mark the beginning of our forty day observance of Lent, to engage in a period of prayer and fasting. This is a solemn event in the life of our liturgical church, for today we are being asked to think about our own mortality.
When I was in seminary one of my professors told me that the hardest thing about being a pastor is that I have to remind people that they are dying when everything and everyone else tries to claim the contrary. I have been given the unenviable task of proclaiming the true and deep message of Ash Wednesday; we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
Most of us tempted to believe that we are invincible and that life will never catch up with us. We are tempted to believe that death isn’t real. Countless commercials and products are advertised with the sole purpose of prolonging our inevitable end. Even here in church, we spend so much time talking about the joy and hope of God in the resurrection from the dead, that we fail to spend adequate time reminding ourselves of our own finality.
Today, as we take our first steps into Lent with the ashes on our foreheads, we are like the psalmist who cried out, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love… wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” This is a time for us to deeply reflect on the ways that we can be better, the relationships to reconcile, and the new habits to cultivate. Lent is less about giving something up, and more about reorienting yourself back to God in order to use this life that has been given to you. Our desire is for God to create in us clean hearts and to put a new and right spirit within us. We have been given the greatest gift, the gift of life. The question we need to ask ourselves is this, “What are we doing with that great gift?”
In our narthex there is a plaque hanging on the wall in honor of Zig Volskis, a beloved former pastor of St. John’s. On the plaque you will find these words: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90.12). Life is a fleeting and precious thing, one that we should not take for granted. Let us all learn to count our days, to reflect on our many blessings, rejoice in the gift of life and let our lives be fruitful for those around us.
Death is a frightening thing. Contemplating our finitude and celebrating it in worship is by far one of the strangest things we do as a church. But in the end, we do it so that we may gain wiser hearts, so that God might sustain us in the midst of our sinful lives, and above all so that we can appreciate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the glory of the resurrection. Let God use this Lenten season to help create in us clean hearts.
My friends, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. For the next forty days we will rest in the shadow of the cross, but remember this, the glory of the resurrection outshines everything, even death.