Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 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. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”
While I was growing up, I remember being jealous off all the Christians with ashes on their foreheads every year. I grew up in a church that did not celebrate Ash Wednesday and so it always came as sort of a shock when I would get to school on a Wednesday morning and a whole bunch of people were walking around with smudges on their skin. Part of my jealously stemmed from the fact that they were excused from being on time in the morning and got to miss part of a class. But the depth of my envy came from the fact that they stood out for what they believed.
Of course, at the time, I had no idea what the crosses stood for or why they used ashes, I just thought they looked cool. I can vividly recall the feeling of spiritual inadequacy I experienced because I felt like, even though I went to church every week, I would never compare with the Ash Wednesday Christians. For years I witnessed their piety and was jealous.
When I finally got to an age and a church that celebrated Ash Wednesday, and I sat down in front of a pastor like all of you are doing right now, I was shocked by the words I heard: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
For centuries Christians like you and I have gathered to mark the beginning of Lent with this solemn and holy service. Lent is a season set apart for renewal and repentance. Lent is a time for us to confront our brokenness. Lent is a time to give thanks for our blessings and stop taking them for granted.
These ashes convey our willingness to confront mortality. We hear, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” as a reminder that the bell will toll for us all. This moment is a public witness to our need to return to the Lord.
The prophet Joel describes our need for repentance and renewal through the voice of the Lord: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Return to me, for I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
We know not when our days will end, and because of this we need to embrace each and every day for the gift that it is. I’m not saying we should spend the next 40 days contemplating death every single moment, but instead this season should be a time filled with gratitude for all of our blessings.
Ashes are a reminder for all of us, young and old alike, that life is precious. Because when we hear the words, and when we feel ashes crossed against our foreheads, we confront our limited time on earth. These ashes should prevent us from moving through each day without reflection, they should caution us against rehashing the old arguments and frustrations, they should shock us into giving thanks right here and right now.
God encourages us to use this season, a time that begins right now, as an opportunity to return to the Lord with our hearts, with outwards signs like fasting, praying, and reading. Take this time and embrace the gift that it is by doing things like reconcile with people that you have been arguing with, open up your bibles and discover the richness of God’s Word, and resist the temptation to believe that you are invincible.
I’ve been a pastor long enough now to have placed ashes on individual’s foreheads and then eventually place dirt on their coffins as they are lowered into the ground. I have stood in this sanctuary and made the sign of the cross with ashes on people who have returned to the dust from whence they came. So take this sign, take these ashes, and make good with the life you’ve been given. Stop taking your blessings for granted. Love one another. Give thanks for what you have. And return to the Lord. Amen.