“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are spoken during the Imposition of Ashes at the Ash Wednesday Divine Service as Lent begins. The words are drawn from Genesis 3:19 in which 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.” The sin of Adam and Eve brought death. St. Paul told the Romans, “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). As the children of Adam and Eve, sin has been passed on to all of us. We are born in sin, and in this life we commit sin. There can be only one outcome, for as Paul stated, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
We come to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent as repentant sinners. We confess our sin and we know that it produces the death that we deserve. For this reason too, ashes are used on Ash Wednesday. In the biblical world, ashes were sign of repentance and lamentation. Jesus said, “"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21).
We begin Lent confessing that we are sinners who will die because of sin. This is an admission steeped in humility. We have offended the holy God, and King David’s words are true for us: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). Our sin has earned us death, and there is nothing that we can do to change this fact.
We begin Lent in repentant humility. But we also begin it in hope, for Lent is a season that prepares us for Holy Week and Easter. The apostle Paul wrote that “the wages of sins is death,” yet then he went on to add, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). He described how sin entered into the world through Adam and passed on to all of us, but then later in the same chapter he wrote, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18-19). Adam brought death, but Paul told the Corinthians: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:21-23).
Lent begins with ashes, but it prepares us for water. In humility we confess our sin as we prepare for Holy Week, for on Good Friday we will see Jesus offer Himself on the cross as the ransom for many (Matthew 20:28) – as the ransom for us. We will see that, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Instead, Jesus Christ received God’s judgment against our sin. As the apostle Paul went on to say, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus Christ died for us and was buried. At the Vigil of Easter we return in faith to what happened in our own baptism. St. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Through our baptism we have shared in Jesus’ saving death for us – we have been buried with him.
Yet the Vigil of Easter is the first service of the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord. Jesus died, but on the third day he rose from the dead. And because we have shared in the saving death of the risen Lord we know that we will too. Paul went on to say about bapitsm, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). In the movement from Ash Wednesday to the Vigil of Easter we once again pass from ash to water; from sin to forgiveness; from death to life. While in the struggle against sin we continue to have need to repent, our baptism assures faith that forgiveness and life – resurrection life – can never be taken away from us.