Biblical Quotes for Lent: Reflections on Ash Wednesday

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent.  Up until recent years I never paid any attention to the Christian tradition of Lent.  Lent is the 40 days leading up to Easter when Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Lent begins with Ash Wednesday in order to summon believers to face the reality of our frailty and our mortality.  Truly, we are all dependent on God for every beat of our hearts and every breath we take.  The ashes on the forehead remind us of this solemn fact.

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:11)

From this and other biblical quotes came the famous phrase, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

So Ash Wednesday is about a sober recognition that we are going to die, that we are not in control of when our death takes place.  Even more importantly, it’s about pausing to contemplate the resurrection from the dead and what it means for us.  Jesus’ resurrection is significant for us precisely because His physical resurrection from the dead in time and space is the guarantee that all who center their lives around Him will be physically raised from the dead in the future.

The quote “ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” is not in the bible, but from a burial service in the Book of Common Prayer (1662):

Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the Body by some standing by, the Priest shall say,

Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.

When something is burned up, it is reduced to “dust,” or “ashes.”  If we update part of the above quote for the 21st century, it might go something like this,

we therefore choose to let go of the body of our loved one by this burial in the ground from which all the chemical compounds of living things come from; from soil back to soil, chemicals to chemicals, molecules to molecules; in sure and certain hope of our own future, physical Resurrection, after which we will no longer be vulnerable to the dying process…

Several months ago my mother passed away and I was the one who disposed of her ashes after she was cremated.  Cremation would not have been my choice for her, but she had made her wishes clear and trusted me to carry them out.   The sensation and the visual image of myself carrying the urn full of her ashes into a grove of trees will never leave me.  It was a poignant reminder to me that I would someday be reduced to the basic elements of my own body.

So on the way home from the Ash Wednesday service at our church, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few items.  A young couple doing their shopping stopped me and wanted to know why I had this black spot on my forehead.  I replied, “Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  The ashes remind us that we are frail and mortal.”

horses grazing in front of grove

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