Ashes to Alleluias: Welcome to the Lenten Season
Dust you are, and to dust you shall return
The ashes for which this sacred day on the church calendar is named to mark the beginning of the Lenten season show no one what kind of person you are, but they do show everyone that you are dying—and of that you and everyone else may be sure. Dust we are, and to dust we return. Such is the wages of sin.
When the prophet Joel gathers the people and declares a sacred fast in Joel 2:12–19, we discover that the occasion is one of return. Lent is always about a return. We so often think of it in terms of turning away from—that is, what we are giving up, what we will fast from. Don’t get me wrong; fasting can be a good thing. But by itself, fasting—going without—can be nothing more than an empty religious exercise.
The Lenten fast goes deeper than denying yourself chocolate or alcohol for a couple weeks. Rather, it invites, it summons, it urges you back to Someone, and that Someone is the Lord:
“Return to the lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” – Joel 2:13
A Lent that is anything less than a return in faith to the Lord is only a religious game, and quite frankly, worthless.
Rather than play games with God in this sacred season He summons you to come back to Him. He does not want just a piece of you, some outward display, torn garments and such, a few minutes tossed His way one day a week. No! He wants you, your heart—the center of your affections, worship, and worldview. Hence, the prophet cries: “Rend your hearts!”
You see, Lent is not for virtual sinners. Lent is for real, honest-to-God sinners who are willing to confess they have failed in their love of God, failed in their love of neighbor, and despise their sin and ache for His forgiveness and strength to continue trusting in the God Who justifies sinners.
If that’s you, then the prophet’s invitation rings out as sheer refreshment: “even you, even now: return!”And the Lord Jesus is the One we are summoned to return to. He is the One Who knew that we, on our own, would not come to Him, return to Him, find Him; so He came to us, returned for us, was faithful for us, and happily rescued us from our sin and death.
And that’s the true marvel of this season: Jesus became dust for you! Dust we are, and to dust we shall return, and so the ashes. Many people ask why Christians bother smearing ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Why do we gather and remember what we are this day?
The answer is that while we gather to remember who we are, we also gather more importantly to remember who God is and what He has done for us in and through Jesus.
God has given us a way out of our plight of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." It is the way of the cross. The death of Jesus was God's way of placing a sign of infinite value upon that which would otherwise be worthless. Today it is for us to know and trust that God has chosen to give us some other life than that which leads to the dust heap and the ash pit.
God has committed Himself to us—and given to us a sign of that commitment—the cross. Today we come to take upon ourselves that sign—we gather to return to God and the way that His Son has shown us.
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
These words are found in the committal service in the funeral liturgy, but they don’t stop there. They continue on to say "trusting in God's great mercy by which we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."
These words we should always remember—for we are born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ—a hope that comes to us because of the mercy and the love of God for His people; a hope that comes because God has acted in and through Jesus to open the way to new life for all who repent and believe in the good news that He alone accomplished.
Return to the Lord your God this Lenten season for He is ever ready to forgive.
Pastor Brian Thomas has written a Lenten prayer book for this season entitled, Draw Me Unto Thee: Daily Prayers for Lent.
Brian William Thomas is a writer-in-residence and pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, CA. His writing focuses on confessional Lutheranism in a post-Christian culture and reclaiming ancient pastoral practices for present day service.
What are the differences between Lutherans and Calvinists, and do they really matter? In Wittenberg vs. Geneva, Brian Thomas provides a biblical defense of the key doctrines that have divided the Lutheran and Reformed traditions for nearly five centuries.