By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return”
(Genesis 3:19, ESV).
A few years ago, when my oldest son was 2 or 3, we attended Ash Wednesday service as we usually would. When it came time for the Imposition of Ashes, we took Thomas to the front. He was awed by the moment, and treated his forehead extremely gingerly the whole night. He didn’t want to smear his cross. Later, every time he would see the pastor who had given him his ashes, he would say, “that’s Pastor ____; he gave me my ashes.” Of course, being a mom, I thought this was terribly cute (isn’t everything he does terribly cute?). So one day, I told this pastor what my son would always say, thinking that it was just a cute story. That’s when Pastor really made me stop in my tracks and think. I was relating a cute story, but here’s what he said as his face took on a pensive look:
The hardest thing to do as a pastor on Ash Wednesday is to put ashes on the forehead of children and babies and speak those words to them: “dust you are and to dust you shall return.” I’m telling them they’re going to die.
And it hit me. I knew in my head that Ash Wednesday was about death, but somewhere along the line it had become about receiving the ashes, and isn’t that neat, and that’s about it. But death. It really is about death. My death. My baby’s death. My husband’s death. Your death. Grandma’s death. Dad’s death. A friend’s death. The death of all mankind because of the sin and death of one man: Adam. The Puritans had a rhyme: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” In Adam’s death, we die all. Dust we are. To dust we will return.
It’s a sobering thought. When the First Adam sinned that day, God cursed him and all of us: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Death entered in, and it’s been running a rampage ever since. That pastor was sobered by placing the ashes on my sons’ forehead and saying those words because he knew that his death, like all of our deaths, was imminent. He knew that if something were to happen, he might very well be called to sit by the hospital bed and hold our hands as our child died. He likely had sat by many different hospital beds, like so many pastors do. They have sat with the couple who has lost a child to miscarriage or stillbirth. They have comforted the young family that has lost its wife and mother to cancer. They have performed the funeral for the fallen soldier whose parents grieve his young life. They have buried the elderly man who was alone in this world because he had lived so long that all his loved ones had died long before. They have comforted the parents of a teenager who committed suicide. They have been called in the middle of the night to sit with the family whose husband and father was in a terrible car accident. They have sat in the nursing home by the brother pastor emeritus as he slips away. Dust. All of us. We are going to die.
But on the day that God pronounced the curse, He also gave a promise when He told the serpent:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel”
(Genesis 3:15, ESV).
Death will not have the last word for the people of God. Why? Because the offspring of Eve, the Son of God and the Son of Man, became the Second Adam and crushed the head of the serpent and of death. As in Adam we all die, so in Christ we all will live (Romans 5:12–20). Jesus came and took on our dusty flesh and then died our death. But He did not return to dust. He was raised from the dead so that to those whose repentant hearts remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, it might be proclaimed that our bodies will be raised, the curse of death is ended, and life eternal is ours. And so, there are ashes, yes. But those ashes are in the shape of the cross where the Second Adam laid down His life for all of those born of woman.
Let us pray: Lord God, Heavenly Father, we are surrounded by death. It swallows us and overwhelms us. Hold us fast in the faith and comfort us in the hope and knowledge that we will not remain as ashes, but be raised to newness of life, so that we may proclaim this hope of life eternal to all; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, Our Lord, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
- Did you miss last week’s devotion? You can read it here.
- Next week will begin our series, “The Season in Song.” In this devotional series, we will reflect on five Lenten or Holy Week hymns chosen by our missionaries. The devotions will include videos of performances of the hymns. The hymns are: “My Song is Love Unknown,” “Jesus, I Will Ponder Now,” “Christ the Life of All the Living,” “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,” and “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?”