“In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return. ” (Genesis 3:19) With this common verse shared on Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season begins. I think it best to turn to the words of Thomas Coke as he phrases a reflection on this rather eloquently. “Our first parents wanted to be wiser, wanted to see more, and now they are gratified. But oh, what a sight! How preferable had blindness been to such a discovery!
1. They saw their own nakedness; not only of their bodies, but of their souls. The robe of innocence was rent; the image of God was defaced; their minds now a scene of disturbance; their happiness departed; their misery come upon them; all was lost, and dark despair; and dread of deserved punishment overwhelmed them. Observe, (1.) How dreadful a thing is sin: it smiles in the face, but it leaves behind the poison of a serpent: O that we felt its evil more, and, from the fear of its consequences, kept from the jaws of the destroyer! (2.) How shameful. It must cover us with confusion, either in time or eternity. Happy they, who, by real repentance, have taken shame to themselves here before God and man, and, through the Blood of Jesus, have their iniquity pardoned and their sin covered!
2. They sought to conceal it; and the methods they took shewed how improved they were in wisdom. Strange folly, to think that fig-leaves could hide their shame: it was a poor covering respecting themselves: it was useless respecting God. How like are we! (1.) We think all is well, if we can hide our shame from each other, and save our credit among men! But shall not the day come, when it shall be laid open before an assembled world? (2.) How apt are we to fly to excuses, instead of humbling ourselves under conscious guilt!
Guilt and fear are inseparable. They no sooner hear the voice of God, than that which was before their delight and joy, becomes their horror and confusion. It is probable that the second Divine Person sometimes appeared to them in Eden, as he afterwards designed to appear in the world to suffer, viz. in a human form: and this might tempt them to think it was probable enough, that as, he appeared like them in person, they might become like him in power. But now their presumptuous hopes are at an end, and they seek the thickest covert to be hid from his eye. Their own consciences become accusers, and they have already the sentence of death in themselves: now they began to discover the lie of the tempter; their godhead is debased into the lowest wretchedness, their promised power into abject weakness, and their proud wisdom into senseless folly. Reader, stop, and learn!”
This is a time of deep repentance from our sins. A time to mourn those sins and grieve as God has grieved over them. This is a time for tears. A time to reflect on how we are insignificant outside of God’s design for us. A time when we are reminded of the sad state of our souls before Christ, and also of the continued sad state as we have all fallen short. This is a time for deep reflection and preparation of the season. May the ashes we receive remind us that each of us is as the king of Nineveh and must act accordingly. “For word came to the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne. And he laid his robe from him, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 3:6) Let all that we own and posses be covered in sackcloth and cry out mightily to God turning away from the evil and violence that we are guilty of. As Tamar (2 Samuel 19) let us rend our many colored garments and weep for our disobedience and unbelief. As Mordecai (Esther 4), let the ashes be a sign of our morning for the disaster befalling our land. We can never forget the significance of the ashes upon our heads this day. We can never mourn our sorry state enough, yet we must also remember the promise.
“The Spirit of the Lord Jehovah is on Me; because Jehovah has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to preach the acceptable year of Jehovah and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to appoint to those who mourn in Zion, to give to them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the mantle of praise for the spirit of heaviness; so that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of Jehovah, that He might be glorified.” (Isiah 61:1-3) While we are right to lament in this time, such lament can not be absent hope as we look to the promised Messiah that has appeared, and will appear again. Such is the love and mercy of the Father toward us that in this lament of our woeful state, in the sorrowful recognition of our brokenness and despair, in the state of our rent souls covered in the dust we will one day return to, the Lord God almighty has not only promised the forgiveness and remission of sin, not only promised the salvation of our immortal soul, not only promised the resurrection of our body, not only promised the reconciliation of us to God and Him to us, He promises to bring beauty as the trade for out ashes. In this is not only the promise of beauty, but it is the divinely perfect beauty that only the Holy Spirit may give us eyes to see. From the ashes of our despair will come the pure joy of beauty.
Much as the promise of Messiah provided the comfort for the ashes of the ancients, the knowledge of the Messiah here, and to return, provides us our comfort. Our sackcloth and ashes is no less painful and sorrowful, but we have always the promise of the beauty that is to be traded for them. Even in this tie of sorrowful lament, we exist in hope and promise as we know that our Redeemer lives, breathes, and waits to come again for His faithful. It is good and right that we lament in ashes this day, but unlike those who have no hope, we do so because we know that they will one glorious day be traded for the beauty that has been promised by He who is Faithful and Just. Amen. And amen.