Skip to content

Remember You Are Dust: Ash Wednesday

The Rev’d Joel Steiner’s sermon preached at St. Andrew’s noon-hour Ash Wednesday Service, March 6, 2019.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

In a few minutes we will be marked with an ashen cross and hear these words.

Each year as the church begins Lent and its fasts, the ashen cross confronts us with the true reason for our fasts. Our fasts do not prepare us to approach Holy Week as spiritual Olympians. No, they prepare us to celebrate the faithfulness of God despite our twisted hearts. This is the reality the ashen cross proclaims today.

The ashen cross has thick layers of meaning, but in it we are invited into three main stories from Scripture.

The reminder that we are dust reminds us of the moment that death and sin entered our lives. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” comes from Genesis’s account of our first ancestors. Genesis tells of how long-ago God created us, male and female, from dust, crafting us in God’s own image. To be created in God’s image meant that our life was to be sustained by and find its joy in God’s own abundant life. Yet our ancestors fell for Satan’s lie that we were better off without God, so they turned away from the One in whom their life and joy were sustained. Sin and Death entered their lives. Though God gives them a sliver of hope that the effects of Satan’s lie will be overcome, God’s final words to Adam and Eve are “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is where our story began.

If the reminder that we are dust connects us the beginning of our story, the actual ashes put on our foreheads tell us how our story would end apart from God. As some of you may know, the church doesn’t just mark us with any ashes. Traditionally, they are made with the ashes of the palms that we wave as we celebrate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Receiving them we remember our role in Holy Week.

On that Sunday the crowd buzzed with excitement. Fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, publicly proclaiming his intentions. Could the long-awaited exile be about to end? Had the Messiah come? Would Rome be thrown off? Swept up in hope, the crowd waves their palms and shouts “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest!”

Yet just days after Palm Sunday, the cries of the crowd have turned. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” They are unwilling to accept anything less. Jesus is not their king, he cannot be the Messiah!

At the beginning of Lent, today’s ashes remind us that the twin cries of the crowd are our own. During Holy Week with the crowds we will sing “Hosanna.” With them we will shout “Crucify him!” And we will join these cries not merely to dramatize the story. We join them because the crowd spoke for us. In their Hosannas, they voiced our own misguided, unyielding hopes for how our lives should be fulfilled by God. In their shouts of “Crucify him,” they voiced our own disillusioned rejection of Jesus, our attempts to strong-arm our own salvation when God refused to get in line with our program. On the other side of Good Friday, we can see that even our palms of praise veil twisted, violent hopes. Like our ancestors, Adam and Eve, we refuse to trust the way of fulfillment that God puts before us. We cannot accept that the way of the cross is the way of life. The ashes on our foreheads warn us about the twisted ways that we try to save ourselves. Our Lenten fasts can veil misguided, unyielding hopes that have little to do with what Jesus is actually doing among us. Apart from God, all our aspirations, all the hopes of human history will end in ashes. So through the reminder and the ashes, the ashen cross sets us within the whole arch of human history.

But these ashes do not only speak of humanity’s history. They also tell a third story of how in the darkness of Easter morning, our twisted hopes are not overwhelmed by death, but by the Light of the World, Jesus, the Resurrected One. At the Easter Vigil, the church proclaims this Good News as the palms—our twisted hopes—are set on fire to mark the moment of resurrection. Yes, we cannot save ourselves from our darkness, but by God’s grace Jesus, the Light of the World, will. United to Jesus through our baptism, our life and death are now found in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Today we are reminded of this hope again as the ashes are given to us in the sign of the cross, a sign we first received in our baptism.

Yes, we are dust, and to dust we shall return, but in Jesus, we will not remain dust. In our baptism, God marked us with the cross of Jesus and claim us as His own. And God is faithful.

Overlaying these three stories, the ashen cross sets before us the true purpose of the fasts we start today. Our fasts do not prepare us to approach Holy Week as spiritual Olympians. No, they prepare us to celebrate the faithfulness of God despite our twisted hearts. In our fasting we will likely realize that the twin cries of the crowd are our own, but these cries do not have the last word.

For we have been marked by the cross of Jesus, and in Jesus we will rise.

© 2019 The Rev’d Joel Steiner, Rector, Christ Church, Ayr & Holy Trinity, Kitchener