“...for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19b)
“And being found in human form, [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)
While I grew up observing Lent and the day when this season in the Christian calendar begins—Ash Wednesday—it was an observance that fell away from my life for some years.
But since joining a Presbyterian Church with my husband in 2012, I have been reminded of the beauty and richness of liturgy and tradition.
I am a visual person and a visual learner. Symbolism resonates with me deeply and helps to make abstract truths more real to me. Perhaps this is true not only for visual learners, but for human beings in general.
God created us as both spiritual and physical beings, and often, it takes physical representations to remind us of a spiritual truth. The physical act of having the sign of the cross drawn on my forehead in literal ashes on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season, is a perfect example of a physical manifestation bearing witness to a spiritual truth.
Ashes have an ancient significance as we can see through Scripture. In the book of Esther, when Mordecai hears that the Jews are to be destroyed, he “put on sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:1); when Jonah preached to the Ninevites to repent from their evil ways, the people “put on sackcloth” and the king of Nineveh “arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:5-6); and when Job faced the loss of all he held dear he said, “I have sewed sackcloth over my skin and have laid my strength in the dust.”
While I was pondering these examples, I thought about how truly broken and contrite someone’s spirit must be for him or her to willingly place ashes upon his or her body.
Ashes have always been a symbol of humility, of brokenness. We may recall Genesis 3:19 in which God tells Adam, “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This is what we are without Christ—ashes, dust, a people broken and humbled to the very earth itself.
But the paradox of the Gospel—which is particularly highlighted throughout Lent, a time when many people choose to give something up to remind themselves that everything good we have been given is ours through the grace of God in Christ—is that Jesus Himself became broken for us. We break bread during the Lord’s Supper, recalling Christ’s body being broken for us.
Lent looks forward to Easter when we celebrate Jesus’ victory over death, but Lent reminds us to slow down and dwell on the brokenness of our sin that Jesus had to endure through the cross and the everyday pains and trials of living a human life.
Philippians 2:8 says Jesus, being “found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
At a previous City Church Ash Wednesday service, I learned that the words human and humility derive from the word humus which means soil or earth. Our very nature as human is a humble one, and that is what Christ came to embody as the God who became a man.
And that is also why He can take our broken and contrite spirits and present them to God as sacrifices through His ultimate sacrifice. Whether our spirits are broken and grieved through the hurt enacted by another or by our own sin, Jesus is able to grant not only forgiveness but the very posture of humility, which is essential for coming before the Lord: a broken and contrite heart.
Christian writer Hannah Anderson aptly sums up this Lenten reminder of our humble stance as flawed humans before God:
“Humility teaches us that God is actively redeeming the world. And because He is, we can experience the relief of confessing our brokenness—whether it is intentional sin, our natural limitations, or simply the weight of living under the curse. Humility teaches us to find rest in confession… And ultimately, the humility that leads us to confess our brokenness, both within and without, also frees us to grieve it and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. And this, more than anything, leads to rest.”
(Written by Roni Neffinger)