...There's always something of a tension with hearing the Ash Wednesday Gospel about not disfiguring our faces to show that we are fasting, and then lining up to receive the ashes, isn't there? Sometimes folk think that's what the ashes for which this day is named are doing: announcing, look at me, I'm fasting. Wrong.
Oh, your Lord assumes you will fast, even as He assumes you will pray and you will give to the poor. He did not say "if" but "when." When you fast, when you pray, when you give. And have you ever pondered how tightly they are related? When you fast, you free up time that you don't have to spend on finding or fixing food. And you can use that time for prayer. And you free up funds that you are not using to pay for food. So you can give that away to the poor. Our Synodical President has invited us to join him in daily praying the Litany this Lent. Why not make time for doing so by skipping your lunch, giving that money away, and take up in prayer the needs of all the world and bring them before God and ask for His mercy upon all?
But back to the disfiguring of the face. The ashes of this day do not mark you as fasting, for who knows if you are? The ashes have another genesis. Genesis three, in fact. You recall how when our first parents had fallen into sin, God spoke to the serpent and said: "On your belly you shall go and dust you shall eat." Then He turned to Adam and said: "And you, sir, ARE dust." Adam and Eve looked in horror at the serpent as he licked his chops and they began to run away. And we've been running from death every since. But it is a futile race. The old serpent can take his time. He knows we carry in ourselves the venom that will bring us down finally - sin itself. For that is what sin is: it is death in hiding; and that is what death is, it is sin made visible. (Reardon) So the ashes on your head today announce to one and to all: Dead man walking. Sinful, dying creature here.
And yet the ashes are always placed on the forehead in the shape of a cross to remind us that as much as our dying is a bedrock reality from which we cannot escape, there is an even deeper reality. There is One who became our dying dust, though no poison of sin coursed through His veins. He took that dust through death and burial and then on to a glorious resurrection and a life that never ends. His risen from the dead, glorified dust has become the source of our eternal salvation.
Yes, you are dying. Dust to dust. Me too. All of us will walk that way unless the glorious Appearing of our Lord comes first, but we can face death down through faith in Him who shared our dusty nature to make us divine, who became a child of man to lift us to being children of God, destined for heavenly glory in Him. So you will go down to the dust, but not just to it. With and in Him, you will go through it and be raised from the dust, glorified, to live with Him forevermore.
A blessed Lent to you, one and all. Amen.