Remember: “From mud-clay you came forth. You’ll turn back into it in the end.” It sounds a lot like a provincial incantation. But billions of people today will wear ashes on their heads as the Christian season of Lent comes upon us. Take religion away and think about billions of years of human observation. From fertility rituals to rotting tombs, humans have known from the beginning that life starts in a slimy mess and ends that way. There is a great cycle around us, and we are fools if we miss it. And we often do.
The Prophet Isaiah, thinking about these things says:
“All flesh is like the grass. The grass withers and fades away. Their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
Every great religion understands the swift insignificance of a life, even of an age. There is an earthy and decaying end to all things. But, like Isaiah, all great faiths know that the universe has another power intertwined, a power in which to put hope. Isaiah calls it the “word of the Lord” here. He also says this,
“He has sent me to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.”
So on this Ash Wednesday, whether you anoint yourself with ashes or oil, remember that there are powers in this universe that have endured beyond the lives of trillions of princes and kings, beggars and slaves and all in between. Christians will remember whence they came today not in a fatalistic attempt to foreshadow their graves. They do it in a cross because they know it resembles a future crown given to those who will humble themselves in the sight of the Lord.