There are only two times in most people’s lives when they solemnly get dirt put on their heads. One is on Ash Wednesday, and the other is at their own funeral. If you have attended an Episcopal graveside service, you know the words: "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." And if you have attended an Episcopal Ash Wednesday service, you know the other words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The first time words like these were ever spoken was way back in the story of the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve rebel against God. They eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ensuring that they will, after all, have funerals themselves, even though God had originally wanted them to live forever. In describing the consequences Adam and Eve bring on themselves by declaring independence from him, God says to them, "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return."
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a stark reminder of both where we came from and where we’re going. There is not much value in ashes. Basically they’re worthless. In fact, dust and dirt are often less than worthless – they can be a hindrance and a liability. They fall onto the carpet and get rubbed in, they stain your hands and clog your machinery. You can't make dirt pretty by painting it, or improve ashes by spaying perfume on them. All other factors being equal, we are by nature a walking, talking, thinking, acting package of dust and ashes.
And we remember that tonight; we mark ourselves with ashes to remind ourselves. When all is said and done – our self-made righteousness is like rags covering us; our virtue-signaling for others to see leaves us less clean rather than more; our half-hearted kindnesses are a squirt of perfume on things done and left undone that are all too dusty and unappealing. All other factors being equal, we remain a walking, talking, thinking, acting package of dust and ashes.
And yet, the truth is that all other factors are not equal. God has offered us a way out of our plight of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can know – and not just know, verify in our own experience – that God will give anyone who asks a different kind of life than the kind that leads to the dust heap and the ash pit. Our Epistle tonight pleads with us today to enter into that life, or to re-enter if we have let it grow a little stale: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
And all that God requires of us in this is that we accept his mercy, that we remember we are dust, and that -- instead of trying to become better, prettier dust – that we turn to Jesus Christ and put our whole trust in his grace and love. No trust in the ashes. No hope in the dust. All our trust and all our hope in the strong mercy of Christ.
So as this Lent begins, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But don’t stop there. Don’t just repent; repent and believe. Join in our parish deep dive into the three things Jesus taught about in today’s Gospel - fasting, prayer, and almsgiving - to remind yourself that through Jesus, even dust and ashes like us can inherit the Kingdom. Be reconciled to God. Remember and relish what Christ has done for you. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.