Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Ashes to Ashes....
Many Lutheran parishes, I suspect, still do not practice the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The resistance of introducing it, if it was not used before, would probably be: "That's too Catholic." For many older members would no doubt remember the old days when their fellow Catholic classmates at the local grade school would come in bearing that familiar "smudge" on the forehead.
Yet the symbolism is still so powerful for anyone who has attended a Lutheran graveside committal service. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," the pastor intones as he reminds the people that the body is being committed in the "hope of eternal life." The reading from 1 Corinthians 15 (which is one of the two included in the pastor's agenda), points the listener beyond the grave, beyond death, even beyond that disembodied state they are now in, to the resurrection of all flesh, the ultimate goal of our salvation.
There is a humbling feeling to realize that our bodies, for all their youthful vitality and strength, can be reduced to less than $2 of chemicals and a small box of ash and bone. I have been with families when they scattered the ashes of their loved ones (a practice I really do not prefer), and it is sobering to see how this temple in which we once lived is now indistinguishable from the soil upon which it lies.
Ashes remind us like few things do, of the effect that sin has truly had on mankind. It removes the breath of life that God originally breathed into Adam's lungs. It reverses the process whereby man was brought from the earth by God's command and returned again to it (Gen. 3:19). In short, it brought death.
In a culture that wants to believe that sin is just a choice, neutral of all morals, this is a message that brings us back to reality. The wages of sin is death.
Ash Wednesday is the day when the church begins its Lenten journey by starting with that event of sin which made the coming of a Savior the critical need for man. It takes us to the ground and lets us see the damage that sin has inflicted. As the baptized we are buried again with Christ into his death, and we die in Him to the power of that sin. The reversal has begun. Life to death to life again. Earth to living being to earth to living being again. The font is both the tomb and the womb, the place of death and the place of new life. Our Lenten journey thus only beings with the ashes. It properly ends at the empty tomb where the dead body of our Savior was resurrected by God, and death is swallowed up by life.
The grave that sits before us today is only a reminder that the story is not finished. He is coming in glory still. The call to life has begun. Death's days are numbered.