There’s an old saying, “The only thing that is certain is death and taxes.” This is partly true. There’s plenty of people that manage to skip out of taxes, one way or another. Sometimes they’re caught. Sometimes they manage to hide it. But, nobody can hide from death. It levels the playing field for everyone. Poor, rich. Old, young. Beautiful, plain. Weak, strong. Male, female. It impacts everyone. Nobody escapes its icy grip. Perhaps the only thing that is certain is death.
Today’s Ash Wednesday. The faithful will gather, have ashes smudged on their foreheads in the sign of the cross, and leave under the darkness of night. Soot fills our noses. Our mortality stares us straight in the eyes. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” These are the very words that will accompany us to the grave. We are ash. We are dust. We are dead.
Our culture does its best to avoid aging and death. Makeup commercials demonstrate the reversal of the aging process. Clothes promise to keep us hip and cool (I just dated myself a bit). Technology gives us access to power to control our lives, make them efficient, and keep us busy so that we can’t reflect that we are but dust. We live such frenetic lives that we aren’t great at just being, reflecting, and facing who we really are. Peter Pan never wants to grow up. Toys-R-Us helps us put into liturgy our disgust at growing up and getting old. And, the job market makes it readily clear that getting old means you are outdated and replaceable.
The Church has not been unaffected by this trend in our culture. We are often escapist in our mentality, hoping to get to heaven so as to avoid any unpleasantness that we might experience here on earth. We’re even uncomfortable talking about Jesus’ call to “come and die.” How shocking it is to be confronted with our own death… our mortality… our dust-ness. Yet, there is nothing we can possibly do about that. We can curse and scream, avoid it, throw money at the problem, buy everything to make us happy and sedated, engage in risky behavior, bargaining with God by promising to be more religious or pious. None of it works. We are but bodies of death… and who can rescue me from that?
Romans 4 recalls a story about an old man and woman. There isn’t anything particularly special about them. They are average, run-of-the-mill kinds of folk. Abe is a rancher, somewhat successful, though he travels a lot with his family. About the time they get settled, they uproot and move to a new location. Sarah is a beautiful, but old woman. Never could have children. She keeps up with the household tasks and responsibilities. But, she has always felt a bit empty at not having children. And, to be honest, she is kind of a difficult person to work for… just ask her maid.
Would you believe that God calls these normal folks… this couple that is just about to kick the bucket? Would you believe that God tells them they’re going to be parents – of a great nation!? Incredible! People that could never have a child before are now going to conceive a nation that will be a blessing to ALL nations. What’s all the more incredible is that Abraham trusted God. He wasn’t focused on how he couldn’t have children, how he and his wife were both infertile and incapable of producing an heir. He trusted God. Abraham trusted that God’s call included a promise to bring it to completion… especially where Abraham and Sarah were incapable.
The smudge that will mark our foreheads this evening are ashes that mark us as dust, as mortal. But, ashes are not the only thing that are placed on the forehead. Oil is also mixed into the ashes. Oil is a symbol for the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. In remembering we are but dust and as good as dead (just like Abraham and Sarah), we are also invited to receive the very Life of God which is able to take our ashes, our disappointments, our failures, and our inabilities and breath new life into the midst of them. Though we are marked as dust, that does not have to be the final word. But, it is not something that we can do… it is only God’s gift through the Spirit.