Monday, February 8, 2016
By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19(NLT)
Two days from now is Ash Wednesday. All over the land people will flock to churches to have ministers take dirt mixed with oil from their Pyxis box and smear it on their foreheads. Some ministers will even take up a place on the street to impose ashes.
It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that we were made from the stuff, and someday we’re going back to it.
Remember that you are dust…
Ashes were an ancient symbol of our humanity. In Genesis, we read that God formed human beings out of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word translated , is occasionally translated elsewhere.
When Abraham felt the need to acknowledge the difference between him, a human being, and the infinite God, he referred to himself as dust and ashes. “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord,” he said, “I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27).
…and to dust you shall return
Our humanity also calls to mind our mortality.
After expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the first human beings are told by God, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 NRSV). We know the day is coming for each of us when we will return to dust.
We wear black as a sign of mourning. Ancient people wore ashes. For example, a priest named Modecai puts on sackcloth and ashes to grieve the many deaths he sees coming from an order King Ahasuerus gives to kill all Jewish people (Esther 4:1-3). The prophet Jeremiah later calls the people of God to “roll in ashes” as a way of mourning the coming devastation from an opposing army (Jeremiah 6:26).
Receiving the imposition of ashes is a powerful way to confront our humanity and mortality. They remind us that we are not God, but God’s good creation. In them we recognize that our bodies will not last forever, and come face-to-face with the reality of our eventual death.
Ashes also signify our sorrow for the mistakes we have made. People in ancient times wore sackcloth and ashes as a way of expressing their repentance of their sins.
When Jonah reluctantly preached to the people of Nineveh after the giant fish spit him up on the beach, the King and his people put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. God saw this act of repentance and spared the people (Jonah 3:1-10).
In the New Testament Jesus mentions this practice. Warning the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida Jesus said, “if the miracles done among you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have changed their hearts and lives and put on funeral clothes and ashes a long time ago.” (Matthew 11:21 CEB).
When we participate in the service of ashes, we confront our sin. We recognize our inability to live up to all God has created us to be, and our need to be forgiven. No matter how often we go to church, how far we have come in our spiritual journeys, how accomplished we may feel, each of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
The container holding ashes is called a Pyxis. Pyxis is a small and faint constellation in the southern sky. Abbreviated from Pyxis Nautica, its name is Latin for a mariner's compass. In Greek the word literally means “box”.
The ashes are our life’s compass-points contained in a box, reminding us of that from which we’ve come and that to which we are going.