By John Armstrong
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Pastors and priests around the world speak those words to the faithful every Ash Wednesday, celebrated this coming week.
They are painful words to speak.
We don’t like being reminded of our mortality.
Advances in medical technology have enabled us to remove the dying from our homes to hospitals and hospice centers, where they receive the best possible care.
And when death occurs, we hire professionals to make the body look more alive than dead, and we hire others to bury the remains.
None of this is wrong.
It has become customary and it can be helpful, but it also denies us the up-close-and-personal contact with death and burial that Americans of earlier generations could not avoid.
We have managed to keep death and dying at a distance and hidden from view. Yet it cannot be evaded.
One hundred percent of us are terminal.
Ash Wednesday is one day in the Christian calendar when we intentionally confront that reality.
Many evangelical Christians do not observe Ash Wednesday because it is not in the Bible.
That is understandable.
From a Lutheran perspective, to observe the day or not is a matter of Christian freedom, since it is neither commanded nor forbidden in the Bible.
We choose to observe it not because we must, but because we are mortal.
As a result of Adam’s sin, God imposed on us all the penalty he previously had promised, “You shall surely die.”
Having made man from the dust of the earth, God said to Adam, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
God was speaking to us also as children of Adam, for we were all in Adam when he sinned against God.
Since death cannot be avoided, it must be confronted.
The minister uses charcoal or ashes to make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful, as an outward sign of their inner repentance and sorrow over sin.
God’s forgiveness is for sinners only, and God forgives sinners through the blood of Jesus shed for us.
The minister then speaks God’s forgiveness to all who believe this Good News.
As the Scripture says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may lift you up in due time.”
God’s mighty hand imposed death upon us, but death serves only to shepherd us to the cross of Christ, where we see God’s solution to the sentence of death.
The inevitability of death humbles us and causes us to seek the one who overcame death on Easter.
Ash Wednesday brings us low emotionally and spiritually, but God lifts up the lowly.
It is a day we intentionally confront the reality of our death, only to increase our longing for the Christ who is our life.
The Rev. John Armstrong is is pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Columbus and may be reached at gracecolumbus.org.