Lenten Devotional Day 16

The Soot and the Cross

“We are but dust and ashes,” said my friend, Pastor Glynn, as he traced a dark cross on my forehead. It was Ash Wednesday 2020. I wore the sooty cross all day, thinking over and over, “I am but dust and ashes.”

Then I went for my regular Thursday gym appointment the next day and read painted on the wall in capital letters each 24 inches long: “YOUR ONLY LIMITATION IS YOU.” What contrasting messages. The ancient Christian motto which for centuries has preceded Lent clashes with the modern claim that I determine the boundaries of my own life. Nothing could be farther from the Christian attitude of Lent.

SOOT. In biblical times, persons mourned their tragedy and repented their sins by marking themselves with dust and ashes. Occurrences of this practice are found in Job, Esther, Jonah, Ezekiel. This ritual through the ages portrayed repentance toward God, recognition of weakness, humble submission, a plea for mercy.

During Lent, Christians contemplate the sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ as he laid down his life to atone for our sins and to give us eternal life. The “warm up” or preparation for Lent is our Ash Wednesday acknowledgement that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” Sobering and honest — this assessment of ourselves. We are ephemeral, helpless, waiting for the breath of God to give us life. From dust, the Lord made Adam, exhaling into that fragile earthy form the divine breath that would bring physical and spiritual life, bestowing the Imago Dei. 

The second Adam chose our sooty vulnerability as for at least 3 decades, Messiah Jesus Himself lived in a fragile body that was “but dust and ashes.” He experienced the joys and pain, the wonder and the limitations of humanity. In His baptism He identified with repenting sinners and submitted Himself fully to the will of the Father.

CROSS. The ashen cross on my forehead that day represents at least two incredible concepts. First, the cross of Christ is the most astonishing display of Divine Love imaginable. The more we contemplate this act of self-giving love, the more we find it almost unbelievable that God would go to such lengths to reach and redeem rebellious sinners. The Triune God seized the initiative with this, crucial, costly, and fully sufficient act which changed the balance of the universe from ruin to rebirth.

Second, the cross sketched in ashes on believer’s forehead symbolizes personal identification with the cross of Christ, with the crucified life, with full submission to the Father regardless of the cost. Perhaps most who undergo this rite don’t fully realize this. (Certainly, I myself don’t fully realize this.) Edith Stein, who lived in Germany during the Nazi era and died at Auschwitz wrote: 

Whoever belongs to Christ must go the whole way with him. He must mature to adulthood: he must one day or other walk the way of the cross to Gethsemane and Golgotha. . . . If you intend to be the Bride of the Crucified, you too must completely renounce your own will and no longer have any desire except to fulfill God’s will.

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn “O Love Divine, what has Thou Done!” which appeared in 1742. These lyrics express both concepts of the cross event and some of its personal impact on both God and us. Wesley addresses God in these stanzas, amazed at the enormity of God’s love and its transforming impact on humanity.

O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Is crucified for me and you,
To bring us rebels back to God.
Believe, believe the record true,
Ye all are bought with Jesu’s blood.
Pardon for all flows from his side:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Behold him, all ye that pass by,
The bleeding Prince of life and peace!
Come, sinners, see your Savior die,
And say, “Was ever grief like his?”
Come, feel with me his blood applied:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Charles Wesley, 1742

The Lenten experience reminds us that each human being is fragile, transitory, limited, and doomed without God’s bold, unexpected, ironic act of redemption in Christ. The only reasonable response to love like this is to unite our humble submission with the regal submission of God the Son. He tasted death for us all and leads all His children in triumph to glorious resurrection.  

Rebecca Luman, Ph.D
Assistant Professor of Formation and Instruction at Wesley Biblical Seminary; Director of Spiritual Formation and Distance Learning.