This was the message I prepared for Ash Wednesday. This gives insight into the practice of Ash Wednesday and sets
the tone for the Lenten Season.
“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, He turned His face to go to Jerusalem.”
Luke 9:51 is a significant verse in Luke’s gospel, truly marking a “turning point,” if you will, in Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Again, we read, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, He turned His face to go to Jerusalem.” From
here on Jesus’ ministry had a specific direction – heading toward Jerusalem. Why Jerusalem? He wasn’t just headed to Jerusalem to visit, but He knew He was headed to Jerusalem to die and specifically die on a cross. He knew this was central to His mission, and so from this point on He resolutely “turned” to Jerusalem, to the cross.
This season of Lent that we’ve just entered is a time for us to “turn” our attention to Jesus and especially turn towards the cross as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. Our turning to Jesus to prepare for Holy Week and Easter goes deeper than our merely thinking about Jesus and remembering the events from the last week of His life. Lent calls us to TURN our entire lives to Jesus and seek to align our lives with Him, with His way, His truth and His life. We have a word for this deep turning. The biblical word we use is the word REPENTANCE. The Lenten season is meant to be a season of repentance, and repentance literally means TURNING from heading in one direction to head in another direction. For us as Christians then, repentance has to do with turning from living for self and from sin and turning to Jesus, to live for Him, seeking to follow His way, His truth, His life, the way He has revealed, the truth He has embodied, and the life that is in Him. We are called to turn to Him with every aspect of our lives, with everything we are. Going back to Jesus turning to the cross, Lent then is a time for us to turn to the cross in terms of denying self and then taking up our cross to follow JESUS.
We begin this season of turning in what may seem to be a strange way on the somber day called Ash Wednesday when we have ashes put on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. As the ashes are spread on our foreheads, we here these words, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe the GOSPEL.” We hear the word REPENT proclaimed over us which indeed signals that this is to be a time of repentance, a time of TURNING from sin and turning to Jesus. But what’s with the ashes on our foreheads?
The practice of Ash Wednesday is first mentioned in the 7th century. Also, in the Old Testament and in antiquity, ashes were both connected with both mourning and repentance. But again, why? Why were ashes used in connection to repentance; what is the meaning behind the ashes? The words you will hear in a moment, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” give us a clue as to WHY ASHES related to repentance as these words show that ashes are meant to call to mind our mortality. In Genesis 2, God forms Adam from the dust which is also translated to ashes, and then, in Genesis 3, after disobeying God, Adam and Eve are told by God that they will return to the dust, to ashes.
But how then is our knowledge of our mortality to connect with our repentance? Our thinking about our mortality is meant to help us realize the sense of urgency with which we should live. We will all face death which means we have a limited amount of time in this world to live. Truth be told, we are NOT guaranteed tomorrow. We actually live breath to breath and moment to moment. Any moment could be our last. This knowledge should then motivate us to REPENT, to TURN from sin and TURN TO GOD IN JESUS CHRIST. So then, in connection with the Lenten season, this symbolism of ashes calls us to take seriously this season of TURNING, to truly make the most of it and to not take it for granted. So then, may we turn to GOD in CHRIST JESUS with a sense of urgency, truly turning to Him with all we are and turning from everything that is NOT of Him. As Jesus teaches, may we deny ourselves, take up our cross so we can then follow Him.
Going back to the statement you hear spoken over you when the ashes are applied to your forehead, there’s another part of that statement that I’ve NOT yet discussed. Something is said after the word REPENT is used. After hearing, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” and then “Repent,” you then hear, “believe the GOSPEL.” There’s a lot implied in this statement. When we turn to God in JESUS CHRIST, there’s then GOOD news that we can accept and believe. You see, when we repent, when we turn to God in Jesus Christ in faith we open ourselves up to another miraculous “TURNING,” a turning that is transformation that can happen that is indeed GOOD NEWS, the BEST NEWS of all. If we put our faith in JESUS, in His life, in His death on the cross for us, and in His resurrection from the dead, the good news for us then is that our MORTAL lives can be turned to immortal. When we turn to Jesus, we make way for God to turn us, really transform us, from being merely “dust” to being immortal, resurrected beings who will live with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit for all eternity. Just as God breathed life into the dust to form Adam and Eve, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit will breathe life into us if
we’ve turned to Him in faith.
Sisters and brothers, this is the GOSEPL, the GOOD NEWS! This Lenten Season TURN to God in Jesus Christ and believe this good news of Jesus’ dying on the cross and His overcoming sin and death by His being raised from the dead for you, for me and the world! Thanks be to GOD, JESUS TURNED HIS FACE TO JERUSALEM, to the CROSS, and died for you, me and the world. And thanks be to God, God turned it all around by raising Jesus from the dead. So now, won’t you turn YOUR life to Christ and open yourself up to be more than merely dust, more than just a mortal being? Now is the time to turn to Him because we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow. We don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we can know and FOREVER BE WITH THE ONE WHO HOLDS TOMORROW. TURN to Him now and find life. Remember, you are dust you, and to dust you shall return. But also, remember to REPENT and BELIEVE THE GOSPEL, the good news that you don’t have remain dust but can be raised with Christ now and forever!
Photo by Sarah Korf