Lenten filth

My daughter doesn’t seem to mind being filthy.
When I went into her room this morning, she was happily babbling away in her unintelligible infant-speak. She looked at me and squealed with delight and kept repeating “da-da-da-da.”
I lifted her out of the crib, put her on the changing table, and unzipped her sleeper. I thought I smelled something. She had soaked straight through her diaper and into her pants (she wears two layers during the winter). But in spite of her wet clothing, she was as happy as a clam. Apparently, my daughter doesn’t seem to mind being filthy.
This little episode got me thinking about Ash Wednesday, which was yesterday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, and many Christians (myself included) observe the funny little tradition on this day of having ashes smeared on their forehead. Apparently, we don’t seem to mind being filthy either.
Ashes have long been a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin. When Jonah preached to the city of Nineveh, they repented in sackcloth (think burlap) and ashes. Jeremiah the prophet told the people of Israel to put on sackcloth and roll in ashes before the impending destruction of Jerusalem. And Daniel pleads for God’s mercy while praying in sackcloth and ashes.
But why ashes? Dust and ashes (which are like peas and carrots in the Scriptures) are a sign of our mortality. This is why Genesis 3:19 is often read at funerals, “for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” But dust and ashes are not just a sign of mortality but also of sin. After all, we are only mortal because we are sinful. The Lord created Adam from the dust (Genesis 2:7), but sin reversed the process and we return to the dust.
This is a powerful symbol to be placed on our heads. Ashes testify to the sin that inflicts us with mortality. That mark on our head says, “you are not clean, and because you are not clean, you will die.” No one ever said repentance is easy. It forces you to admit things you’d rather not. Look in the mirror, and there we see a sinner. We see someone marked with mortality. Repentance calls us to mind our filthiness.
Before someone reports me to DCFS, let me finish telling you about my soaking-wet daughter. After I took off her pajamas, it was straight to the bath with her, where I could clean her up. After her bath, we did our morning devotions. Now part of our everyday routine is reading a psalm, and today’s psalm happened to be number fifty-one. Given my daughter’s little soaking incident, I thought this psalm was very fitting, especially verses two and three.
“2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.”
The perfect psalm to begin Lent. Ash Wednesday doesn’t simply begin a 40-day period of feeling bad about ourselves. As much as Lent is about the filth of sin, it’s also about the cleansing that Jesus brings. As the Psalmist says, our sins are always before us. The ashes are there to remind us of this. We know our filth and our transgressions. But Christ comes and dies to wash all that away, a little like my daughter in the bathtub.
The ashes on our foreheads speak of sin and death. But we know that the ashes don’t have the last word. It is true – “for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” But Christ will raise us from the dust. He is the one who wipes away the ashes of sin and mortality. And if some ashes smeared on our forehead point us to Jesus, then maybe we shouldn’t mind being filthy from time to time.

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