Today, many of us will find our way to the doors of a church to received the imposition of ashes upon our forehead.
We will hear how we are made from dust and will return to dust. We will hear of how we are frail and broken and in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. And we will be reminded of this season we are entering, the season of Lent, a time for self-reflection and examination and purging to discover what is getting between us and God. It is often a solemn season, one where we weigh our lives and ask God to help us see ourselves more clearly, the good and the bad, so that we can offer it all to Him and ask our God to do what He does, transform us.
Ashes as a sign of repentance is found throughout Scripture. Job in the face of God’s reply to his complaint says, “therefore I retracted and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). The prophet Daniel speaks of seeking the Lord for the release of his people from Babylonian exile with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes (Daniel 9:3). Lamentations speaks of the elders of the daughter of Zion who in mourning “sit on the ground, they are silent, they have thrown dust on their heads; they have girded themselves with sackcloth, the virgins of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground” (Lam 2:10).
On this Ash Wednesday as we received ashes in the sign of a cross on our forehead we will also hear these words from Scripture “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” words spoken by God to the first humans after the Great Fall (Gen 3:19).
We are reminded in all this talk of ashes and dust to remember our mortality and brokenness and sin, and our need for God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness.
But as I thought about these ashes that will be used to mark the sign of the cross on my head today, I thought of another place ashes and dust are in Scripture.
If you go back further… to the very beginning, you find the story where God took up the dust of the earth, and with love and intention, breathed into this dust life. He formed and molded and gave shape to this dust and made it a living being, out of love.
Out of love. We are created out of love. We are formed and fashioned and molded from dust out of the overflow of love between our Triune God: Father, Son, Spirit. God’s love is the very reason for our existence.
As I thought of this creation from dust out of love… and as I thought of the ashes that will be placed upon our heads today… and as I thought about the fact that it is Valentine’s Day this Ash Wednesday, I thought how amazingly appropriate!
On this Valentine’s Day when we celebrate love (which for some is a joyous day and for some is a day of pain and heartache), we are also reminded on this Ash Wednesday of the Love that formed us from ashes and dust. As we receive the sign of the cross in ash upon our heads, we are reminded on this Valentine’s Day of the Greatest Love we could ever experience or know… the love of God who formed us in love, pursued us in love, claims us in love and makes us the object of his Love, ashes and all.
When we come forward to receive ashes we are indeed reminded of our fragility and mortality and sinfulness, but we are also reminded we are deeply, extravagantly, crazily LOVED!
Because friends, it was for the love of such ash and dust creatures as us that Christ came and submitted himself to the cross for our sakes. It was for the love of these frail and broken creatures that we are, who were formed out of love and lost our way, that our God came low, became dust and ash Himself and experienced our life in every way yet remained sinless, so that he could take on our sin and brokeness upon himself in order to transform it and redeem it. It was for the love of these beings that we are, who are just a breath and then gone (Psalm 144:4), that God breathed his last breath and in doing so fully embraced us with his love.
Friends, from dust you came and to dust you will return… all the while being held secure and safe in the hands of love by the One who takes your dust and ash life and speaks over it, “You are my love, my Beloved and I delight in you.”
Don’t believe me?
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine…
Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you
The LORD your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
he will quiet you will his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.
The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life. Matthew 3:16-17 The Message
Yes, these words are said over Jesus, but they are also words said over you now as one baptized into Christ’s baptism… as one marked and claimed and chosen by God. Just listen to this parallel in Ephesians, as if Paul was drawing from this moment in Jesus’ life and claiming it over us…
Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, he chose us and had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Ephesians 1:4-5 (adapted from the Message and the ESV)
So on this Valentine’s Ash Wednesday, know dear friend, YOU. ARE. LOVED. Beyond measure, beyond fathoming, beyond understanding, you are deeply, fully, unspeakably LOVED.
God looks upon you as you carry the sign of the cross in dust and ash on your forehead and speaks over you the blessings of his love.