When I told my kids we would be going to church to have the sign of the cross put on our heads, they told me they already had the sign of the cross on their heads. They meant the sign of their baptism; they meant that they belong to God.
Then we had to talk about how this sign we will be making tonight is one they can see, at least for a short time. How we are making this mark to remember that even though we belong to God, we still die and death still has a hold on us.
That creeped them out a little, why do we need to remember that we die? They asked.
Ash Wednesday begins our Lenten journey to Easter with the sign of the ashes made on us. This ancient sign speaks of the frailty and uncertainty of human life, and marks our penitence.
Ashes is a sign of grief and a recollection of death that awaits us all.
We will mark the cross on our foreheads in ashes, visible, smudgy, dark and dusty. Death. Mortality. Frailty. But we will trace the mark of our humanity over top of the unseen but permanent mark of our baptism.
The words spoken at baptism begin:
“In baptism God claims us,
And seals us to show that we belong to God.
God frees us from sin and death,
Uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.
Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
One of the most powerful experiences of Ash Wednesday I have ever had was when my son was 5 months old. Just in front of me as we came forward for our ashes, was a woman who was a beloved pillar of the church, Alice Satterfield; she was 84 years old.
She made her way slowly forward, her body bent over her cane and feet shuffling, and I watched the pastor trace the cross on her forehead in ashes and say to her, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
Tears sprang to my eyes when I heard those words spoken over Mrs. Satterfield, not knowing how much longer she would be with us, and realizing how painful it would be when she was gone.
Then I stepped forward to receive the ashes myself. The pastor leaned towards me, and with a black-smudged thumb reached out and traced the cross on the forehead of my gurgling baby boy on my hip, and said, “from dust you came and to dust you shall return.” I gasped and felt as though I had been hit in the stomach.
It was true, I realized.
What was true for Mrs. Satterfield was true for Owen as well. It is true for everyone. Even fresh arrivals in this world will go out of it eventually. Nobody escapes death. Everyone one of us is in need of life.
Why do we need to remember that we die?
Because it’s true.
And because remembering that reminds us that we are not God. That we need salvation.
And so by receiving this sign of the cross tonight we hold these truths together – that we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever, no matter what, we belong to Christ, in whom there is life everlasting.
But even though the power of death has been broken in Christ, and we will celebrate the resurrection at Easter, we still die. And we still participate in sin and death in this life.
We are badly in need of the Resurrection.
Beloved of God, says the water and anointing first, chosen and claimed. Destined for eternity with the Creator, empowered by the Spirit for a life of faithfulness and love.
And dying. Weak, says the ashes on top. Vulnerable, human, broken.
Tonight you are invited to come forward and welcome the honesty the ashes offer. To bring your brokenness, your places of sorrow and loss, your places of weakness and failure, the places you forget you belong to life and live instead like you belong to death.
Let the ashes be your prayer.
Let the ashes invite you to meet God in those places of sin and death, as we journey towards the cross and the hope of the resurrection.
You have created us out of the dust of the earth.
May these ashes be for us
a sign of our mortality and penitence,
and a reminder that only by your gracious gift
are we given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior.
Remember that you are dust,