Wednesday, February 22, 2012

You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God though our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Romans 5: 1-5).

When I was growing up, one of the church experiences I remember explicitly is the imposition of ashes at worship on Ash Wednesday. I remember those worship services as being reverent, solemn, and slightly disconcerting. The part that made the biggest impression on me was walking to the front of the church with the rest of the congregation to receive ashes. It was a curious and extraordinary thing to hear the pastor’s pronouncement upon us all as we each received the ashes on our foreheads. Old and young, rich and poor, we were all told the same thing. I can still hear the voice of my childhood pastor speaking those words, “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” There was no difference between any of us standing there in God’s presence. We were all dust. It didn’t matter what kind of car you drove, how big your house was, or how much money you had in the bank. Unto dust you shall return. Not that I grasped the full significance of that ceremony as a child; on some rudimentary level, though, I got the message, and it stuck with me.

When I went away to college in western Kentucky, there were relatively few Lutherans or Roman Catholics, and so the practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday was not as familiar to the general public. I was asked on more than one occasion by perplexed acquaintances, “Why do you have dirt on your forehead?” I would explain that I had gone to church and this is what we did on Ash Wednesday. It was the beginning of Lent. Some people thought it was an odd practice. Others were curious. They all knew, however, that I was a religious person because I had taken part in a solemn, and somewhat mysterious (at least to them), ceremony. I am ashamed to say that I enjoyed that feeling. My church is so much cooler than their church; we have to do more stuff than them. Now I am embarrassed of how I thought and acted then, no better than a Pharisee, whose hearts were far from God, though their lips praised him[1]

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 fast days before Easter. The name, as you probably figured out, comes from the practice of the ancient church of sprinkling ashes on the heads of penitents as a physical act of contrition and repentance for their sin. Ashes are a symbolic mark of humiliation[2], contrition[3] and mourning[4] (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999). During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxury as a form of penitence. Many churches strip their altars of candles, flowers, and other devotional offerings, while crucifixes, statues, and other elaborate religious gear may be veiled in violet (Lent, 2012).

According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. During this period of fasting he endured temptation by Satan. Thus, Lent is described as being forty days long. Different churches calculate this forty day period differently. Generally, however, most churches do not count the Sundays during this period as a part of Lent.

My personal understanding of the significance of Ash Wednesday and Lent has deepened significantly from the days when I was in college. This is how Lent and Ash Wednesday are described in the devotional book, “Treasury of Daily Prayer”:

During the forty days of Lent, God’s baptized people cleanse their hearts through the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is a time in which God’s people prepare with joy for the Paschal Feast (Easter). It is a time in which God renews His people’s zeal in faith and life. It is a time in which we pray that we may be given the fullness of grace that belongs to the children of God (Kinnaman, 2008).

As an immature Christian, though, all I got out of it was a pharisaic feeling of self-righteousness and spiritual superiority. Nice. Like many others – most notably the Pharisees – I had taken something that was intended to point me toward the Savior and turned it into a vehicle, or a good work, for earning my own righteousness.

God’s Law indeed commands us to do good works of thought, word, and deed. It also condemns and punishes sin. It is by the Gospel – through faith in Jesus – that God gives forgiveness, eternal life, and the power to please him with good works (Luther, 1986). The words of St. Paul in the fifth chapter of Romans could not be clearer. St. Paul assures the Roman readers of his epistle, and us as well, that it is not through any deed we do with our hands that God forgives our sinfulness, but through faith in Christ Jesus, the Son of God.

Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:37).

In asking this question, Jesus makes it painfully obvious that there is nothing that we can give to ransom our soul from damnation. This is the idea that St. Paul echoes in verse six of Romans chapter five when he writes, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”

St. Paul describes us as “ungodly” and “powerless”. Because of our sinful disobedience, we are ungodly. When Adam and Eve knowingly chose to disobey God, in order to obtain knowledge which they sinfully thought God was denying them, human nature was corrupted. Our parents had lost the ability to know and please God, and this corrupt nature has been passed on to us.

Fasting and other acts of worship are not in and of themselves harmful. On the contrary, when they are employed properly, practices such as fasting can greatly enhance one’s spiritual life[5]. There are many instances of fasting recorded in Holy Scripture[6]. Jesus himself, as discussed earlier, fasted in the wilderness while contending with Satan[7]. The danger arises when we, in the manner of the Pharisees, become self-righteous, seeking to gain God’s gracious forgiveness by our deeds, and substituting these deeds for real repentance.

This is one of the major issues which led to the Reformation. Over time, the church developed complex regulations about fasting and holy days. The people were taught that by following these rules, they earned God’s grace and good favor. They thought that the more things they did, such as fasting and giving money to the church, the more holy they were. Philipp Melanchthon wrote in the Augsburg Confession:

First, the chief part of the Gospel – the doctrine of grace and of the righteousness of faith – has been obscured...The Gospel should stand out as the most prominent teaching in the Church, in order that Christ’s merit may be well known and faith, which believes that sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, be exalted far above works...Christian righteousness is something other than such works[8]. Christian righteousness is the faith that believes that sins are freely forgiven for Christ’s sake (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005)[9].

Jesus spoke plainly[10] to his disciples about how he would pay for humanity’s sinfulness:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31).

Jesus lays out God’s plan of salvation to the disciples and they, yet again, fail to understand it. Peter has the dubious distinction of rebuking the Savior later in this passage from the Gospel of Mark. Doubtless the disciples, who, at least at this point, saw Jesus as a political Messiah who would lead the revolt against Roman oppression, were greatly shocked to hear Jesus say that he must be killed and rise again after three days. St. Paul, again in the fifth chapter of Romans, sums up Jesus’ teaching:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him (Rom 5: 8-9).

The blood of Christ shed on the cross has justified us. We did not participate in Christ’s saving work at all. It happened, as St. Paul wrote, while we were still powerless. There is nothing we have to offer, no work we can do, no ceremony we can perform, in order to merit God’s forgiveness. God has given us forgiveness as a gift, and he sends His Holy Spirit to us to create faith in our hearts and enable us to do works that please him – not in order to earn his grace – but to glorify his most holy name.

But how could the blood of one man make atonement for the sins of mankind? Psalm 49:7 says, “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him.” The answer is found in the pages of Holy Scripture: Jesus Christ is not only truly human but also truly God.

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1:3).

Again Scripture records the deity of Christ:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form… (Col. 2:9).

Christ had to be true God in order that his fulfilling of the Law, His life, suffering, and death might be a sufficient ransom for all people (Luther, 1986).

You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1: 18-19).

Through his suffering, death and resurrection, Christ has triumphed over death. He has acted as mankind’s substitute, taking the punishment for sin that was meant for us. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have been given the gift of eternal life.

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Scripture tells us that God wants all men to be saved. However, many reject the Word and resist the work of the Holy Spirit. On Calvary’s cross Jesus, God in human flesh, stretched wide his arms to embrace mankind. Do not turn a blind eye to his sacrifice and a deaf ear to his call – what He did, He did for you. This is what we acknowledge on Ash Wednesday. During the fast days of Lent, we come before Him in repentance, acknowledging our sinfulness. We, by the working of the Holy Spirit, refocus and follow Christ on his journey to the cross, and prepare to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s salvation plan at Easter.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 15:8-9

[2] Isaiah 61:3

[3] Daniel 9:3

[4] Matthew 11:21

[5] 1 Corinthians 9:27

[6] 1 Samuel 7:6; Nehemiah 1:4; Joel 2:12; Acts 10:30; 13:3; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27

[7] Matthew 4:2

[8] Romans 14:17

[9] Augsburg Confession XXVI 4-6, “The Distinction of Meats” 

[10] Mark 8:32

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Harrison, E. F., Bromiley, G. W., & Henry, C. F. (Eds.). (1999). Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Kinnaman, S. A. (Ed.). (2008). Treasury of Daily Prayer. Saint Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Lent. (2012, February 22). Retrieved February 22, 2012, from Wikipedia:

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

McCain, P. T., Baker, R. C., Veith, G. E., & Engelbrecht, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.