I dare say there’s likely not a soul here who didn’t chant that as a youngster. And the words are true: ashes, ashes, we all fall down. You will fall down, sooner or later - if our Lord does not return first - you will go back to the dust from whence the Lord took us at the get-go. Death is simply the fact of our existence here that we can try to ignore, hide from, and play games with - but in the end, it’s no game and there’s no hiding. It tracks you down and squeezes the last bit of life from you. And then your breathless clay returns to the dust, the life in it burned to ashes.
So this day. Ash Wednesday. I love that we read the Gospel from Matthew 6. Don’t disfigure your faces to show folks you’re fasting - and don’t let your piety be outward stuff. Not showing off in either prayer or in giving or in fasting. Let it be secret, hidden, inner and real. Not a performance for others to admire how religious you are. And then we dare to go around smearing foreheads with ashes and wandering out in public. What gives with that?
With the liturgy, you always need to listen to get the action. The Word of God that goes with the ashes is the one from Genesis 3. Words from the Lord of life who shaped us, gave us life, set us in the paradise of plenty, and bid us feast with Him on His gifts. Words from the Lord who had spoken a word of warning about one fruit: “The day you eat it, you shall surely die.” Words that God spoke to frightened Adam and Eve on the saddest day of human history: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Remember. And as the sound of the clods strike the coffin, we hear the words: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Remember.
O people loved by God! The ashes of this day do not say the first thing about fasting. Who knows if you are or not? And it’s no one’s business but your own. But they DO preach. They DO proclaim. They SHOUT OUT: DEAD MAN WALKING. They proclaim the reality we try to hide from but cannot escape: “I’m dying.” And not so subtly they announce: “And you are too.” Headed for the grave we are, both of us.
Now, if that is all this day were about, it would be a pretty sad and hopeless day. But it’s not all. Oh, no. For those ashes go on in the shape of a cross. The cross of Him whose love for you was so great, so unbelievably huge, that He - the Immortal One, Only begotten of the Father from eternity - was willing to become dust for you, born of the holy virgin. And to become dust so that He could lift from your shoulders and heart the burden of the sin that brings you down to death. He chose to carry it Himself. All of it. Every last bit of it. Entirely answered for by Him on Calvary’s tree as His very own. Think of it! You are free because HE owned your idolatry, cursing, disregarding of God’s word, dishonoring of your parents and other authorities, every hateful word and deed that has left others cut and bleeding, all your sexual sins, your laziness and stealing, your hatefilled and hateful, lying words, your never being content with God’s gifts and always looking for happiness in what He never gave you - yeah, all that ugliness that the Big Ten show as the content of your life. HE owned it. To death. It has no hold on you. Not now. Not anymore. You’ve been set free. By His blood. By His death. By His passion. Fear not!
So you can go down to your own grave in the confidence of His cross. And better than any smear of ashes on your head proclaiming your mortality is the immortal body and blood of His Eucharist. He puts into you the dust of dust body that was on that Tree, the blood that stained Calvary’s hill, now forever beyond the grave, and with it He promises: your sins are gone, child, and life unending is and will be yours. I gave myself for you to give myself TO you. My unending life is yours even thought the grave close over your head and your body lies in dust and ashes. Death won’t be able to hold you - after all: your sins are answered for entirely. Death has no right to you. Not now. Not anymore. You are mine and I will remember you, I will never forget you. Do not fear.
Lent starts then as the Lord’s gift of a return. A return to Him, to His embrace and love. You heard it in Joel - “Return to the Lord your God for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love...the Lord had pity on His people.” You heard it in Second Peter - that the Lord has given us His precious and very great promises so that we can become - of all things! - partakers of His divine nature. Through these promises He gives us escape from the corruption of this world through its sinful desires.
Ashes, ashes we all fall down is true, but it is not the whole truth. People loved by God, as this Lent begins, let us face our mortality in the confidence of a different song:
There is nothing worth comparing to this life-long comfort sure;
Open eyed my grave is staring; even there I’ll sleep secure.
Though my flesh awaits its raising, still my soul continues praising:
I am baptized into Christ, I’m a child of paradise.
A blessed Lent! Amen.