The Hope of Ash Wednesday

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March 5, 2014 by Austin McNair

Painting by Glenn Brady

On Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world, including myself, will cover their foreheads with damp ashes in the shape of a cross. Why in the world do they do this?

“For dust you are, and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:19

The above verse from the book of Genesis is the trademark verse of Ash Wednesday. More than just a pithy saying, the verse is a profound statement about the human condition. It reminds us that human beings, while indeed unique among creation, are still composed of the same atoms, molecules, and particles that the rest of the universe is made from. If we wanted to be a little Carl Sagan-y, we admit that we are in the weird middle position of being the created universe looking at itself.

But eventually our looking mechanisms will begin to fade, technology will overtake us, and sooner or later we will be dead and forgotten by the generations to come. We are made out of dirt and we will return to the dirt. This is the bleak reality of the human condition which we must admit. We are creatures hurled into existence on a one way track towards death.

There is good news, though. While the ashes symbolize our mortality, they also represent the promise of a hope beyond our human condition. We observe the shape of the cross – a crude image of the torture device used to murder the Messiah. On the cross, Jesus experienced the same death which we will all face one day ourselves. It was the kind of death that stunk of permanence. It was the only kind of death we know.

Yet, three days later everything changed. The tomb was discovered empty and the body of Jesus had gone missing. Did somebody steal the body? No. The followers of this dead Messiah began to go mad saying that this same Jesus began making public appearances, first to his disciples, then to his friends, and then to a crowd of almost five hundred (1 Cor. 15:6).

A resurrection! Death was brushed aside by something, no, someone more powerful – the long awaited Messiah who would deliver humanity from the captivity of death.

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our humanity, but it is also the beginning of a 40 day journey towards resurrection Sunday. With the ashes, we are reminded of our current human condition, but we are also pointed towards the resurrection, which tells us that this condition will not last forever. One day, death will be done away with completely.

The hope of Christianity is not about going to heaven when you die. The hope of Christianity is that in the end, God’s people will be released from the cosmic grip of death.

We will finally experience a life which is only pointing towards more life. This will not take place playing harps in the clouds. In the same way that Jesus physically raised from the dead, so too will we physically rise from the dead, defeating death, and experience restoration.

That is the hope of Ash Wednesday.

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