Ashes are a sign of mortality and the frailty of creation. Ashes of loved ones passed sit in urns and are spread on the ground. If you’ve ever visited a place recently scorched by wildfire, then you know the eerie and haunting silence of ashen ground and barren trees, fragile monuments to a place once bursting with life.
Ashes are also a symbol of the hidden power of new life. One of the things I learned during my time as a student pastor in rural Nebraska was that controlled burning of farmland in the early spring was a common practice used by farmers to enrich the soil, ensuring healthier and more robust crops for the summer growing season. Catching sight of a bright green shoot emerging from a blackened, ashen ground qualifies as one of those moments we can be stunned into silence by the marvels of creation. A symbol of new life emerging from a picture of death.
This day—Ash Wednesday—embodies the paradoxical nature of ashes and the Christian life of faith. This day, with its deeply rooted liturgy and ritual, “is a reminder of life’s endings, which simultaneously call up new beginnings.” From dust we come, to dust we return. And out of death, comes new life.
This evening, in the midst of God’s people gathered together, God’s word read and preached, and God’s life-giving meal of bread and cup, we also mark our foreheads with ashes, remembering that statement of mortality, that “we are dust and to dust we will return,” while also holding the promise that where death began, new life will always emerge.
Having dark ash traced on our forehead while simultaneously hearing Jesus say that our acts of piety should be done in secret might strike us as a little strange. Stamped with a very visible symbol of piety, it might feel like the words and the actions set aside for this day set us up to be a classic hypocrite. But I’ve discovered that over and over again, Jesus has more concern for the “why” than the “what.” Do we use our mortal and frail bodies for the sake of others or ourselves?
If we do something only to appear faithful and to make us feel better, than we do run the danger of being fools and hypocrites. But if praying in a restaurant before a meal is a way you express your faith, then by all means bow your head and pray. If handing out meals to folks on the street is a way you express your faith, then by all means continue to give and serve. If taking a break from sweets or binge-watching Netflix are ways you deepen your faith, then by all means, abstain. Maybe this is what Jesus means when he says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Our hearts will be in line with our answer to “why,” not “what.”
Part of confronting our mortality is acknowledgment that sometimes our hearts are not in the right place. Sometimes we are unfaithful, envious, apathetic hypocrites. Sometimes we are self-centered, neglecting the needs and concerns of others. The day of darkness and gloom described by the prophet Joel tonight and realized by events like the school shooting today in South Florida, takes the form of gritty ash. As we impose ashes on each other, it’s as if we blow the trumpet and sound the alarm to the presence and influence of sin and death. Yet somehow, against all odds, God responds with forgiveness and new life. In the end, the one who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who relents from punishing, promises a new beginning.
What seems like an ending tonight, is really a new beginning. A day blackened by our mortality, shrouded by sin and death, is the beginning of a journey with new life on the horizon. With the end of each day comes a new beginning, washed in God’s life-giving waters.
Our life on earth is governed by paradoxes—contradictions—we are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. Wonderfully woven and shaped by God’s hands out of earthly stuff, we again become the very stuff from which God breathed life into us in the first place. Yet the paradoxical life of faith doesn’t end with ashes. Where we assume death to be the ending, it is only the beginning. With the cross on our brow we follow the waters that flow to Easter resurrection.
 Melinda Quivik in Sundays and Seasons Preaching Year B 2018 (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2017), 85.