‘You are from dust and to dust you shall return’

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of journey into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus

By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Staff at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville took part in worship on Ash Wednesday. (Photos by Randy Hobson)

LOUISVILLE – For Ray Jones, the acting director for Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a personal journey, as it does for Christians around the world, into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In worship at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Center on March 6, Jones said he was reminded  of how taken aback he was when he first began to encounter the season of Lent.

“We didn’t grow up celebrating Lent,” he says of his family’s faith tradition.  “My parents didn’t always show me my purpose — and love.”

Which is what Jones experiences now and is reminded of when the Lenten season begins. For Jones, Lent begins when he hears the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

“It’s a little morbid at first,” he says, “but as I move fully into the Lent, it’s all about reclaiming who I am as a child of God, as God’s creation.”

It’s a time for Jones to re-examine his faith, what it means that God has created him — and is reconciling and restoring his life. He describes it as part of his “baptismal journey” of dying to old ways and rising to new life.

“I don’t give stuff up anymore,” he says. “What I try to do now is add a new spiritual discipline.”

The Rev. Nikki Collins led worship on Ash Wednesday. (Photo by Randy Hobson)

During the Ash Wednesday service, the Rev. Nikki Collins, national coordinator for the PC(USA)’s 1001 new worshiping community movement, spoke of how she used to think about what she was going to do with the 40 days of Lent. What habit would she struggle to let go of? What practice would she take up in hopes of it becoming a habit? Her expectation come Easter was that she would emerge from the tombs of her own making, filled with new life.

Reflecting on Matthew 6: 1–6, 16–18, in The Message, where Jesus warns his disciples “to be especially careful when trying to be good, so that you don’t make a performance out of it,”  and when practicing “some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God,” to not “make a production out of it,” Collins encouraged those gathered to remember what she sometimes forgot when her focus was on what she was going to do during Lent.

“Jesus came from the tomb with a gaping hole in his side and freshly scabbed hands and ankles,” she said.

“So, let’s pay less attention to whatever we might be trying to do for God, of how we might want to save the world — and allow God to show us what the Spirit is doing within us, as we find our story in the empty wilderness with Jesus.”

That is what the season of Lent is modeled on — the story of Jesus being led by the Spirit right after his baptism into the wilderness, where he fasted and prayed.  It was in this wilderness, early in his ministry, where Jesus was tempted to forget — and throw away — who he was as God’s beloved.

“May we allow the hidden work of the Spirit to make us a little more like our Lord,” said Collins.

The Rev. Dr. David Gambrell assisted during the Ash Wednesday service. (Photo by Randy Hobson)

The liturgy for the Ash Wednesday service was taken from the Book of Common Worship. The Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, from the church’s Office of Theology & Worship, led a responsive reading from Psalm 51 — including singing this refrain from the “Glory to God” hymnal (No. 426): “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me, O God, and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me. And lead me in the everlasting way.”  

In his latest book, Presbyterian Worship Questions and Answers, Gambrell addresses why people are marked with ashes as they begin the season of Lent.

“Ashes are an ancient biblical symbol of repentance, sorrow, poverty and sacrifice,” he writes. “They are connected with the image of dust as a sign of our mortality.”

“On the day called Ash Wednesday, we are marked with ashes, tracing the sign of the cross — the sign of Jesus, who gave his own life for our salvation.  At this first service of Lent, we face our own mortality, repent of our sin and commit our lives to the grace of God,” Gambrell said.

To guide him in this Lenten practice, Jones uses the prayer of Examen. Daily, he enters into a time of thanksgiving before examining how he was cooperating with God’s work — and where he was not.

“Then I deal with issues, where I need to seek forgiveness,” he says.

For Gambrell, the recovery of Ash Wednesday among Reformed churches, a tradition once thought of as a Catholic celebration, is a visible sign of the great ecumenical work that has been accomplished in the past century. Catholics and Protestants now have a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith — a key theological issue dividing them in the Reformation.

“Presbyterians are longing for the meaning and mystery of sacramental, liturgical worship,” says Gambrell. “There is still much work to do, but we begin this season of Lent marked with a strong sign — of our sorrow for centuries of division and of our hope for reconciliation with God and one another.”

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