I have a thing for skulls. I suspect most people assume it’s a biker thing. Well, that’s kind of true. I like pirates too. But, it’s actually spiritual.
Centuries ago, Catholic monasteries had skull rooms, in which the skulls of deceased monks were kept. From time to time, a monk might keep one of those skulls on the corner of his prayer desk, as a reminder of his own mortality. In other words – someday your skull will be sitting on some other monk’s prayer desk!
We tend to forget, deny, or ignore our mortality. Life expectancy is increasing. Face lifts, tummy tucks, and botox keep us looking young. Medical advances are curing diseases that used to be deadly. While we haven’t quite reached immortality, we certainly seem to cling to youthfulness longer and longer.
There was once a time that most cemeteries were adjacent to, or surrounding, churches. Now, they tend to be somewhere outside of town – out of sight and out of mind.
But, we are all mortal. Eventually, all of us will die. It’s just a matter of time. Then what?
Today is Ash Wednesday. Today we observe the strange tradition of smearing ashes on our foreheads – an intentional reminder of our mortality, and our desperate need for a savior.
Genesis 2:7 says, “the Lord God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground…” That’s basically all we are – dust and ash. When we die and decompose, all we will be is ash. In fact, some say that our total solid chemical worth is only about $5.
What brings our ashes to life is the breath of God within us. Genesis 2:7 continues, “..and (God) breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Later in Genesis 2, we are told that this first human also lived in Paradise, with access to the Tree of Life. As long as the breath of God was within him, and as long as he ate from the Tree of Life, man would live forever.
But, we don’t live in Paradise anymore, do we?
There was another tree – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – from which the human(s) were forbidden to eat. They couldn’t help themselves. They ate. So would we. And, as God was booting Adam and Eve out of Paradise, and away from the Tree of Life, he said in Genesis 3:19, “…dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Separated from the Tree of Life, death would is unavoidable. One day, the breath of life will depart from every mortal.
It was sin that ended our immortality. It cut us off from the source of our life. Sin, willful disobedience, rebellion, self-determination, ignorance, pride, apathy and even spiritual laziness cuts us off from the one who gave us life. Thus Paul writes in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death…”
But, since God intended us to be immortal, and since God is God, and God typically does what God wants to do, Paul adds, “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus, literally, saves our lives – eternally. He took all of our dust to the cross, and defeated death by rising from the grave. Because of what only he could do, immortal creatures like you and me get a second chance at immortality! (Actually – most of get third, fourth, fifth, etc. chances – thank goodness!)
The ashes on my forehead today, and the skulls I like to keep around (not real ones!), are reminders that apart from God I am nothing but dust. Apart from the saving work of Jesus on the cross, I’m just dust. When I sin, rebel, disobey and turn away from God, I am embracing my dusty-ness. But, today, and during Lent, I am reminded again that I need to embrace the Savior – Jesus Christ.
I’m only dust without him.