The association of ashes (or dust) with repentance has a long history. After Job, for example, encounters God, his response is to “repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). “O daughter of my people,” the prophet Jeremiah pleaded as he warned the Israelites of their sin, “put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes” (6:26).
This biblical imagery gave rise to the practice of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent when God’s people remember their sin, fast, lament and seek to make the spiritual discipline of repentance a habit of the heart. “Pervasive, all-of-life-repentance,” Tim Keller says, “is the best sign that we are growing deeply and rapidly into the character of Jesus.” At the imposition of ashes in my church the words are intoned, “Remember that you are dust and that to dust you will return.” It’s a poignant reminder of the words God spoke to our first parents at their fall into sin (Genesis 3:19).
This year—on Ash Wednesday, 2019—a few minutes before midnight my mother died, passing from this life into the next. Mom was 95, increasingly feeble, sliding ever deeper into dementia, and ready to go, so there is a real sense in which her death came as a relief. Still, being by her bedside over several days as she died makes the idea behind Ash Wednesday into a far starker reality than I would wish on anyone.
As I was in her room at the memory care center, waiting for the end, hoping the morphine would ease her agitation and discomfort and allow her to sleep, the story of Moses and the burning bush kept intruding on my consciousness. It was a text on which I was scheduled to preach in a few days. It’s about being rescued from slavery, being redeemed from the suffering that comes from being oppressed and unappreciated as a human being, of being treated not as a person of dignity and importance but as insignificant. One of my most vivid memories of Mom was her telling me how she never felt appreciated, either as a child or an adult. My father was an abusive, controlling man, and Mom often asked me why he always treated her as if she didn’t matter. We told her often that she was important to us, and loved, and tried to demonstrate it in the way we cared for her. In her last few days we kept repeating it too, although we weren’t certain she could hear us.
In a way that was simple and authentic, Mom believed that in repentance, in Christ she was granted forgiveness and life. I loved her, but like all of us, she was not perfect. She too fell short, of God’s and her own standards. Several years ago, she told me she realized she had enabled my father in his abuse, and with tears, repented. “I should have done something,” she told me, “but I was so very afraid.”
Repentance is not an easy thing, but hard and costly. It is a fearful thing to face our sin, our failure and turn from them, especially if we aren’t talking about respectable faults but about the deeper patterns of brokenness that keep us enslaved. It shames me to realize that like my father I tend to be a controlling person. It’s not something I desire but rather a tendency that’s second nature, and that simply appears because well, it’s the way I am. And so I repent, and repent again, and pray the Spirit of God would discipline me to develop new habits of the heart.
A day or two before Mom died several of us were with her at her bedside. She was asleep, sedated to ease her discomfort. Our friend Anita Gorder took Mom’s face in her hands and said gently, “Marjorie, I love you.” Mom opened her eyes, looked at Anita and said, “I love you too.” Those were the last words my mother said before she died.
And though this is pure speculation, I suspect they were also the first words my mother said when she met her Savior on the other side.
Source: https://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/All_of_Life_Is_Repentance-Keller.pdf; Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash.