“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are spoken during the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. They are not the most uplifting words. Instead they are focused upon our mortality and impending death. They remind us that even in the midst of life, we are dying. Day by day our body ages in a process that will result in only one thing. We will die.
We live in a world that fights against this. Billions of dollars are spent in the researching and applying medical treatments that seek to extend life. Fortunes are spent in trying to conceal the signs that bodies are aging. Yet ultimately, all of these fail. Death comes to all people.
The attempts of this world fail because they do not - and cannot - deal with the root cause of death. They do not address the problem of sin. We learn in Genesis 2 that God formed Adam out of dust when we read, “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7 ESV) . God created man as the unity of body and soul and placed him in the very good creation that God had made (Genesis 1:31). Man alone was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and God gave him authority over creation (Genesis 1:28) and the responsibility to care for it (Genesis 2:15). In the paradise of God’s created intention, there was no death.
However, in the attempt to be like God (Genesis 3:5), Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They sinned. And just as God had warned them (Genesis 2:17), sin brought death. God said to Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 ESV). Sin brought death, and it has brought death for everyone since then, for as St. Paul tells us, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12 ESV).
There is only one way to deal with sin and the death it brings: repentance. Repentance is the focus of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent as a whole. In repentance we confess our sin before God and take hold of His promise of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Lent prepares us for Holy Week and Easter. The repentance of Lent leads to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins and the defeat of death in His resurrection on the third day. In this saving work of our Lord Jesus we find that forgiveness and life are ours. As Paul told the Romans: “For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17 ESV). Through repentance and faith in the crucified Lord we find forgiveness in the present. And in the resurrection of Jesus Christ we find the final defeat of death that will be ours when the risen One returns on the Last Day.