For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. – 2 Corinthians 4:6-11 (NRSV)
I was once a worship leader with a congregation that did not include a confession in its weekly liturgy. When I asked the pastor about this, she said that she wanted to Sunday to be uplifting. I can appreciate that, but being a Reformed theologian, I believe we acknowledge God’s sovereignty in our prayer of adoration and confession. Both are necessary. I don’t feel like it makes our Sunday worship a downer – I believe it makes it honest.
But for most Christians, Lent is a downer and a season most of us could do without. Some churches bury the Alleluia – saving it for Easter. On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we contemplate the death of Jesus – but we know Easter is coming.
But Ash Wednesday is different.
On Ash Wednesday, our nights are still longer than our days. And though the days grow longer, the shadow of the cross begins to crowd out the light we do have. Today, we receive the mark of our mortality on our foreheads. Easter may be coming, but it’s a long six weeks away and is not our focus tonight. Today is for obedient contemplation of our humanity. Being human means that we are mortal and will die one day. But contemplating our humanity also means recognizing the differences between God and ourselves.
Because we are relational people and know an incarnate God through Jesus, we are quick to apply our own human limitations and negative personality traits on God. Created in the image of God, we are not God. People hurt, betray, and oppress – human characteristics that do not apply to God. People run out of energy, have a bad day, or just can’t be enough – human failures that do not apply to God. And so on this day, we proclaim our humanity and God’s divinity.
Contemplating our humanity also means reflecting on the reality of our sin. It’s easy – and pretty common – to think that our sins are just who we are or a bad habit. Our society tells us that we can clean ourselves up if we work hard enough. And we’ve all lived long enough to know that it’s pretty easy to hide our culturally acceptable sins. The world doesn’t believe it needs a Savior because it doesn’t believe its own sin. But to know God leads us to also know our sin. And so on this day, we proclaim our humanity and God’s holiness.
On this day, Ash Wednesday, we confront two truths about ourselves: all are from the dust; all return to the dust. But we are not merely dust. It is also the truth that we are created in God’s image. Genesis tells us that the LORD God formed human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.
Like Paul’s clay jars, we have a treasure inside.
This is my great-grandma’s china. Someone took the dust of the ground, added water, formed it and baked it. They painted it and made it beautiful. I have a cup a saucer from all of my grandmas. This one I’ve had the longest and you can see I’ve dropped it many times. It’s not beautiful or useful anymore. It’s probably garbage to everyone except my Mom and I – because we know its story is its treasure.
- The treasure is not the clay jar – or the cup or the saucer.
- The treasure is not the divinity or holiness of our clay jars – these bodies, our lives.
The treasure is the story within.
- The story of God breathing life into what was once the dust of the ground.
- The story of God’s divinity and holiness living within us despite our aging, cracking, or seeming lack of usefulness.
Today we acknowledge that we are merely clay jars. We are always carrying around death in these bodies. With these ashes, we carry the visible sign of our humanity on our forehead. We can look in the mirror and admit that we are not God and that our sin is real. But we do so with the full assurance of those who know the rest of the story. As Paul continues in 2 Corinthians:
We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NRSV)
Despite dust to dust, and ashes to ashes, the light of Jesus burns within us. Although our bodies may be wasting away, the treasure of Christ renews our soul day by day. Today, when I put the mark of death on a forehead, there is also a sweet fragrance. I mix the ashes with nard to remind us that while our death is a reality, it is not the end of us. It is true that one day, these bodies, our clay jars, will return to the earth. May the sweetness of the nard be our reminder of the sweetness of the treasure within – that in the fragility and finiteness of our humanity lives the divinity and holiness of Christ. Amen.
 Ecclesiastes 3:20 (CEB)
 Genesis 2:7 (NRSV)