Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

by Matthew C. Harrison

How many times have I stood at an open grave and spoken these ancient words:

We now commit the body of our brother/sister to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.

Hundreds of faces … sorrowing loved ones … faithful parishioners now gone … sad and mourning families of suicide victims … vestments flapping in a frigid wind … unexpected deaths … deaths after long illness … many different cemeteries … loved ones gone. They all run together in my mind. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust …”

More and more, I have a harder time looking death square in the face. It’s a horrid experience, but it’s also tremendously salutary. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death is the curse of sin. Sin brought that curse to Adam. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). We live in a world that does not take sin seriously, and it never really has.

When I see death up close, I think of Jesus. When I see a loved one’s face fall in death, I recall Another who suffered horribly. I know Another who was in agony in His last hours. He could barely breathe. He was beaten, pierced and bleeding. I know Another who spoke His last words. I know Another who said to a terrible sinner who had come to believe, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). I know Another who said, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). I know Another whose face fell and turned white in death, whose body hung lifeless and was buried.

And we know how His story ended. Jesus rose from the grave! “The free gift of God is eternal life” (Rom. 6:23)! “He was put to death for our transgressions and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25)!

Lent is somewhat like a Christian funeral. We must stare the awful truth of sin and death directly in the face. In fact, we must stare at it in a mirror. There’s a stench to death, and there’s a stench to a life filled with sin, conceit, dishonesty, idolatry, hypocrisy, lust, jealousy, greed, selfishness and more. During Lent, we contemplate anew the depth of our sin, so great that it took the death of the Great Physician to heal us!

In the words to his classic bluegrass hit, “Way Downtown,” the great guitarist, Doc Watson, paraphrased the words of 1 Tim. 6:7: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards commented about the cremation of his father and placing the ashes at the roots of a tree. He said, “That tree’s my father. Nothing more.” Doc Watson died a confessing Christian, but there are a lot of Keith Richardses out there. We pray that the face of death breaks and shakes the blindness, that the light of Christ’s blessed death and resurrection may come. Let us pray for our own constant repentance, and for the repentance of all, throughout this Lententide.

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Though we know the curse of Adam is true, it’s far from the whole story. Throughout every moment of repentance and solemn contemplation of Lent, we are forgiven Easter people!

May God the Father, who created this body; may God the Son, who by His blood redeemed this body; may God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified this body to be His temple, keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh. Amen.

— Pastor Harrison

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