Ashes to Ashes & Dust to Dust – A Lenten Reflection

When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit

– Ephesians 1:13 –

Earlier this month Jill and I said goodbye to her uncle. JE had lived all his eighty-eight years on the land. A lifelong bachelor he had farmed the same land, first with his father, and then on his own since before the Second World War. We called his land The Farm on Lake Anna, however he had lived long enough to remember before the lake existed. He was a Virginia gentleman, quiet and strong. His hands were calloused with the marks of his labors. He loved his animals, he loved children, and he loved his Lord. His funeral took place in Gordonsville after which he was interred near his parents in a cemetery in Louisa. From the dust of the earth he came, with the dust of the earth he lived and worked, and to the dust his mortal remains return.

Wednesday this week was Ash Wednesday and we went to a service of worship at church. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Following Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, when many Christians of days gone by used up the remainder of their ‘rich’ foods, the church enters a period of reflection and fasting during the weeks leading up to Good Friday. Jill and I both grew up in the Free Church tradition which places far less emphasis on the High and Holy days than the liturgical tradition. Among many of our fellow Presbyterians I suspect the conduct of Wednesday’s service was a new experience. However, an intentional focus upon sin, a call to repentance and a personal sense of contrition were a powerful prelude to the burning of our confessions written on paper, followed by marking with the resultant ash upon each forehead. It was precious to watch our kids embrace the moment. The nearby font provided a welcome reminder that the waters of baptism are a sign that our sins are washed away, just as water will wash away the ashes of the marks of contrition on a forehead.

The mark on my own forehead served as a reminder of my sin. It then confirmed my powerlessness to do anything about that sin, other than rely upon the grace of Jesus expressed upon the cross. It also inspired another thought.

Muslims like to bear a mark upon their foreheads. There have been many times when I have noted the dark mark emphasized in the middle of the brow of a Muslim, looking something like a bruise. For some the mark has become calloused as they intentionally press their foreheads hard to the ground in the ritual of prayer. The position known as sajdah requires the praying Muslim to place hands, knees and forehead upon the ground as he states: Allah-Akbar – God is Great. Some will wear this mark as a mark of pride, boasting in the dutifulness of their devotion to God in prayer. Others will try to avoid such a marking lest they be considered prideful. Either way however, the actions of a devout Muslim are an endeavor to reach God by gaining his pleasure. The mark is a symbol of his own efforts, as through good works and right guidance a Muslim hopes to gain eternity.

Hindus also like to bear a mark upon their foreheads. The Bindi or ornamental red dot upon the forehead is representative of the third eye and associated scientifically with the pineal gland. However, the Bindi is also the symbol of all unity marked where the third eye represents the seat of concealed wisdom. It is intended to focus the concentration of the mind, and lead the bearer into unity with all things. From the times of the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures, dating back 3,000 years, the Bindi was created as a means to worship one’s intellect, to ensure that one’s thoughts, speech, actions and character become pure. It thus represents human striving for perfection. The mark becomes a symbol of the Hindu’s quest to become one with the eternal.

The Apostle Paul, writing his great theological treatise of Christian experience to the people of Ephesus, tells us that when we first believed in the saving work of Christ, he marked us as his own with His Holy Spirit.

My wife’s uncle faithfully served God in rural Virginia. He was laid to rest in the dust of the land, not needing to rely upon anything to see God other than the cross of his Lord and Savior. The ashes, representing our sins in this Lenten season before that cross, are dust in another form; the dust of death, washed away by a Savior before whom all our works count as nothing; a Savior who has replaced the marks of our sins with the anointing mark of His Spirit. We need no other mark upon us.


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