The streets were still lined with beads and remnants of “Fat Tuesday”. Driving to work that morning, I stopped at the light at a busy cross street in St. Louis. Anyone familiar with this area would tell you that South Grand in St. Louis is a place celebrating diversity and individuality. There on the corner, was a sign that read, “Ashes to Go: Drive-thru prayers for Lent”. I know people who took off work on Fat Tuesday. We need a drive-thru for Ash Wednesday.
Being a born and raised Baptist girl, Ash Wednesday wasn’t on my church’s calendar of events. For me, it was something my Catholic friends at school did. I was told it was unnecessary because of Christ’s sacrifice and we went right through to Easter Sunday. The Lenten season was all about preparation for the annual Easter Pageant at church complete with costumes and chock-full of livestock to roam the aisles. I loved it. That is all but the crucifixion scene. I wasn’t able to watch it until I was in high school and even then, like the sun, I couldn’t bring myself to look directly at it. I was much more comfortable skipping right from the miracles in Cana to the resurrection.
While I knew in my heart that the death and sacrifice of Jesus was the remission of my sin and the reason the resurrection was possible, it wasn’t until college that I was confronted with the importance of observing Lent and repenting of the sin my life as I reflected on the sacrifice of Christ. I was encouraged to remind my soul that I am made of dust and to the dust I will return-reminded of my finite and fallible nature and that true repentance and confession beget a sense of mourning.
In scripture, dust and ashes are used in all kinds of ways. First, it is out of the dust that God made human-kind. From the dust of the ground He formed Adam and breathed life into him (Genesis 2:7). We see the dirt or “from the dirt” representing things finite and created after the fall in Genesis 3 (Psalm 104, Proverbs 10, Matthew 6, 1 Corinthians 15).
All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.
:: Ecclesiastes 3:20 ::
Similarly, we see the Bible pointing to dust or ashes as a synonym for being brought low by another (1 Kings 20:10, 2 Kings 13:7). Throughout the Psalms and into Isaiah there are frequent analogies of dust or ashes representing what it feels like to be overcome and subjugated.
Dust or ashes in scripture are often an outward expression of repentance in grief or sorrow over sin and the effects of sin as a reminder of how deserving of death (dust) and in need of a sacrifice (ashes) we are as fallen men and women. (Joshua 7:6, 1 & 2 Samuel, Nehemiah 9, Job 2 & 42)
The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.
:: Lamentations 2:10 ::
While these are not the most uplifting things to study, the problem is that without the dust and ashes, there is no life, no healing, no forgiveness. We can come to love dust and ashes as the means to a glorious end. This is what the Lenten season has become for me.
We know that in the Old Testament and in the temples of the New Testament Jews, there were sacrifices made for sin. These burnt offerings were burned to consumption-only the ashes remained. Ashes are a true sign that something of value has been sacrificed. Someone humbled themselves to confess sin and knew sin would have to result in death to the point of ashes. Jesus, as the full representation of God on earth, did so much with ashes and dust in the way of healing. He didn’t just do away with the old system of sacrifice and offering, he fulfilled it once and for all.
A couple of stories involving dirt or ashes keep surfacing in mind. In the old testament, there were instructions for what to do with a woman who was accused of adultery (See Numbers 5). She was brought to the temple where the priest would mix dust off the earthen floor of the temple with the water that had been sanctified. She was given an oath to repeat before God as she was instructed to drink down the water and dust mixture to purify her and decipher if she was truly guilty.
Similarly, in John 8, Jesus is coming through eastern Jerusalem around the Feast of Tabernacles which means a whole bunch of travelers were in Jerusalem to celebrate. He was in the middle of teaching in the temple when the religious leaders decided to interrupt him and make a spectacle of a woman supposedly guilty of adultery. Levitical law required both guilty parties to be stoned, but in this and other cases, solely the woman is held responsible. When the Pharisees fill Jesus in on the law saying they should stone her, their aim is to put him in a dilemma in front of all who were listening. Jesus responds not addressing her sin but theirs.
First, he knelt and wrote in the dust. While we don’t know what he wrote, we do know that this same finger drawing in the dirt is the very same that wrote the law these leaders were referring to (Exodus 31:18). After, Jesus asks those who had no sin to start her death sentence, they all end up leaving. He asks her who condemns her. There he is asking a question we know he knew the answer to. He asks for her benefit just as every question regarding our sin is one he asks for our benefit. As she tells him her accusers are gone, he tells her he isn’t condemning her either. Spiritually, she stands free. Here, the God who formed us from dust, stooped down to write in the dust. He offered her forgiveness not because he ignores sin. He could offer forgiveness that day knowing he would die for her.
Law and grace do not compete with each other; they complement each other. Nobody was ever saved by keeping the law, but nobody was ever saved by grace who was not first indicted by the law. There must be conviction before there can be conversion.
:: W. Wiersbe ::
In the very next chapter of John, Jesus is around that same area where he and the disciples cross paths with a man who is blind and has been since birth. The word says that Jesus noticed him, which is worthy of pause because it’s likely many people walked by this man blind his whole life and never noticed him. The disciples started to debate the cause of the man’s blindness, agreeing that it must be sin, but whose was it? Jesus let them know that this man’s lack of sight was an opportunity for healing and the glory of God. Again, Jesus stooped down to touch the dirt. This time, he spat and made it mud to spread on the man’s eyes. Some theologians say this is a picture of the incarnation with the first man being made of dust and Jesus, as a member of the Triune God, stooping low to become human in order to heal us all. The Creator God became human, touched the earth, truly saw one of the most unseen in society, and touched him to give him sight. This gift of healing was given to a man who didn’t recognize Jesus as anything more than a prophet.
People immediately started asking him how he was healed. We can see it asked four different ways and each time the man just gave testimony to the events. He had no way to answer on the how. Wanting a break down on the miracle of sight via dirt is fair enough. We all certainly crave the answers to “how”. It’s very official and efficient, but it’s a sure-fire way to avoid the bigger question… “Who?”
We want to understand the mechanics of a miracle instead of simply trusting the Savior. Understanding the process, even if we could, is no guarantee that we have experienced the miracle.
::W. Wiersbe ::
Looking at the observation of Lent and rituals like Ash Wednesday, we can ask the same questions. “How does this help you draw close to God?”. It’s a fair question and we can give testimony to fasting and praying or participating in a service, but the better question when it comes to the miracle of grace that is being nearer to the Lord…It’s always, “Who?”. “Who is the one who brings beauty for Ashes? Who is the one who heals you through sacrifice? Who is this one brings life to the dust?”
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
and on them he has set the world.
:: 1 Samuel 2:8::
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
:: Isaiah 61: 1-3::