“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are spoken during the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. They recall how God created the first man, Adam. Genesis 2:7 tells us, “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.”
God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden and told him, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). God had given dominion over all creation to Adam. He gave him every tree to eat … except for one. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil became the located means by which Adam kept the First Commandment. He showed that he feared, loved and trust in God above all things by not eating of that one tree.
God gave Adam yet one more blessing. In fact, it was the greatest blessing. There was no helper that corresponded to Adam. So God created Eve from Adam to be one flesh with him. She was the perfect complement and Adam exclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23).
Blessed in every possible way, Adam and Eve were not content to remain God’s highest creation. Tempted by the devil, they succumbed to the desire to be God. They sinned, and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet in eating, the only thing they learned was that God was right. Sin brought death. It returned them to the ground out of which Adam had been made. It returned them to dust.
In the Fall, all of mankind was plunged into sin and death. Since the day of the Fall, sinful people have conceived and given birth to sinful people (John 3:6). Sinful people sin, and the result is always death since as Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
This is the brutal fact that we confess on Ash Wednesday. We confess that we are sinners. We are not merely people who commit sin. We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. Those who confess this have no hope of life with the holy God. Those who sin, die.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are spoken during the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Yet as the words are spoken, the ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of a cross. Those who are by nature sinful and unclean have no hope, so God the Father sent His sinless Son into the world in the incarnation. The tree that had been the means of the Fall became the means by which God freed us from sin. Paul wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, “‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent during which we repent. We confess our sin and prepare to remember again how Jesus Christ was hanged on a tree in order to free us from sin. Our sin brought Him death, as he received the punishment we deserve. In death he was taken down from a cross and buried in a tomb. Yet we enter into Lent knowing that death would not have the final word. Sunday, the first day of the week, would follow Good Friday.