The earthy element – “dust” – is our mortality. In Genesis 2, the Lord created the human being from the dust of the ground, we are made from the elements and atoms of the created world. Back then it was noted that as things decomposed in the dry heat so they returned to a dust. We are inescapably mortal. The good news is that we are alive, and in the Genesis story, God breathed on the figure he had made and gave it life.
The ashes however are not dust, they are ashes. They point us to the second theological thread we are asked to consider through Lent and that is the multiple thread of sin, penitence, judgement, forgiveness, particularly mourning for sinfulness, lamenting our sinfulness. A penitent person would cover themselves in dust and ashes, as a sign of their sorrow for their behaviours. It was an outward sign of their inner request for forgiveness, not pretending they had done no wrong, but in the knowledge that they had fallen short of God’s standards.
The world was a simpler world then, and in the Middle Ages this was expected to apply to everyone. The community should publicly and visibly acknowledge its sorrow before God for their sins and seek God’s mercy. Today we know that there are those who have been battered, abused, emotionally maltreated, who were often told they were bad, and worth nothing. Ash Wednesday is not a day to make that abuse or its memory worse. For such people Ash Wednesday should be a day when you hear Jesus invitation and welcome, to lift you out of the dust and set you on the best chairs.
Just as we cannot escape our mortality so we cannot escape “sin”, even if we find that hard to put into words. Sin is the bad stuff that we do, it is also the bad stuff we contribute to; our “greed” for more that locks in poverty in other parts of the world. Cheap clothes are cheap because someone was paid too little to make them. Sin is a selfishness that always thinks we need a bit more, when we could be more generous. Sin is a mean-spiritedness that judges others more harshly – and excuses ourselves; sin is found in those loose words that escape when we are angry, frustrated, or caught off-guard that indicate the deeper thoughts we have. Sin is also, and fundamentally, a way of living which does not honour the Creator; we are children of God, but do we honour God?
I should mention that we can be the victims of the sins of others, and we seek a freedom from the effects of those sins.
Like mortality, sin is a reality we cannot escape. Like mortality it is not something we find easy to talk about. Our Christian faith believes in a God of life and new life, in a God of mercy and forgiveness. We should be thankful to our Creator; we should be deeply thankful to our Redeemer and Saviour, who took the sin of the world on himself, who so loved the world that he gave his life as a ransom to set us free. Who is this Jesus?
As we walk through Lent, let us use the space to reflect honestly on dust (our mortality), and ashes (our sinfulness), and let us discover the Creator and Redeemer whose breath of life is stronger than death and whose offer of redemption and forgiveness is for all who would seek it with empty hands.
Wednesday 1st March 2023 7.00pm Broadhead Room St. Anne’s Church; Guest Speaker Bernard Cocker, CEO founder of International Aid Trust (Christian Compassion in a hurting World), who has been organising the distribution of essential goods to the Ukraine since the beginning of the war. All welcome to listen to Bernard a charismatic speaker and passionate follower of Jesus. Please register your interest with Margaret Webb or Harry Campbell (Church Warden). Or contact Rev Peter Reiss