Today marks the beginning of the season of Lent. The Anglican Service Bookprovides a brief and helpful description of the ritual of markings oneself with ashes on this day:
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent, a time of spiritual warfare, of fasting, penitence, and preparation for the Easter feast. Beginning in the tenth-century ashes were imposed on this day upon penitent sinners in preparation for their restoration to full communion with the Church. Since the eleventh century, ashes have been imposed upon all the faithful as a reminder that the wages of sin isdeath. As God said to Adam, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19b) But as we are marked with ashes in the same manner that we were signed with the cross in our Baptisms, we are also reminded that we only have life in Christ, the second Adam.
I appreciate how this description of the practice of being marked with ashes provides a reminder of our chrismation at baptism, in which we are signed with a seal as Christ's forever. This penitential act of marking oneself with ashes, therefore, should not produce in us a feeling of dread, but rather a reminder of the promise of reconciliation and restoration. Our lives are indeed temporal, weak, and susceptible to faults, foibles, sins, and offenses. However, through the grace and mercy of God through Christ, our heavenly Father looks upon us not as worthless dust but as priceless children.
We are like the son in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We have done everything imaginable to offend God and His love for us, but He runs to us with open arms to reconcile us back to himself. He looks past the stench of our sins and embraces us, ashen and tarnished as we may be, as His own children. Furthermore, He embraces us with the promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us.
The reminder on Ash Wednesday that we are dust, and to dustwe shall return, should not lead us to feel pity for ourselves but thankfulness for the restoration and reconciliation God provides. We may be dust, and as dust, our destiny apart from the grace of God may be to simply return to that dust, but God makes this dust of immeasurable worth and value, for He has declared that we are created in His divine image, and He has breathed His breath and spirit into us.
These dead and dry bones can walk and live again because of what God has done for us.