Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Ash Wednesday

Given the title 'Sunday's coming' I wasn't sure whether to post this one: but here it is, anyway.

Ash Wednesday (Isaiah 58: 1-12 , John 8: 1-11)

Soon we will hear the traditional words to accompany the imposition of ashes
‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

Dust gets a bad press. We all dread the visitor who will notice the dust on what should be shiny surfaces of our home; we speak of grand plans turning to ‘dust and ashes’; we certainly know it’s not a good thing to get be described as ‘old & dusty’. The origin of the phrase ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’ come is the judgement of Adam, when God finds he has sinned’. It might seem a terrible, even a debasing thing, to be told we are just so much dust.

But we are dust.

Apparently up to 95% of household dust can be made up of human skin: even before death, we are destined to return to dust.

And when Adam is told that he is dust, it is not some sort of curse from God, but a statement of the truth: as human beings we are not made, chemically, of anything different from all the rest of creation around us – the Genesis story tells us Adam was made of the dust of the ground; Darwinian evolution tells us we are evolved from simpler life-forms; Carl Sagan, the astronomer, once said, memorably ‘we are made of star stuff’ – they all say the same thing, we are just one part of the whole of God’s created order.

We are dust. But far from being a put-down or a curse, this is a statement of fact which can lift our sights and our hearts to live as God created us to live.
Isaiah’s voice calls out to the people of God to be aware of their sins, not so that they can repent in sackcloth and ashes – looking the part of those who have turned back to God. But Isaiah demands justice, the sharing of bread and home, clothing for the naked: repentance which expresses itself in a new life.

So our words for imposing the ashes cannot stop at
‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
But go on to say
‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

We are dust – we are human – we are fallible – and we fail.
But we are dust – we are God’s creation – we are made for a better life – and we are forgiven.

Perhaps when Jesus, confronted with the adulterous woman, traced the dust with his finger he was reminding the crowd not only of their common humanity as ‘frail children of dust’, but also their creation as children of God – made for love and not revenge; made for good and not evil.

Yet how do we make this change from failure and alienation to love and relationship? Surely it isn’t enough simply to remember who we are and whose we are and try to live accordingly?

The prologue of John’s gospel tells us, effectively ‘the Word became dust’ – God came in Jesus, sharing everything about our human nature, including our innate ‘dustiness’. This human dust can become the vessel for God’s glory. We are dust – but we are loved dust, blessed dust, visited dust, glorified dust.

‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

Come and celebrate our part in God’s creation: sinners of frail dust, and yet the beloved children of the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ to lift us from the dust and bring us home to him.

Thanks be to God.

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