Good News of the Kingdom of God

“Beauty For Ashes”

hand ashesSometime this week, as I went about my regular work, I noticed something different on the faces of the people I met. As I looked at them, they stared back at me incredulous, wondering perhaps why I did not wear what they were wearing.

It was Wednesday and most people I met on the streets, inside the malls and in some offices had this distinctive “ash” on their foreheads. “Ah, its 'Ash Wednesday!'” I thought, the beginning of the Roman Catholic's observance of Lent—the 40-day period leading to their celebration of passion and death of Jesus Christ.

The image I saw on the foreheads of people kept me thinking about those “ashes”  for the rest of the day.

I remember when I was about five or six years old, after seeing my mother was proud to wear those ashes on her head, I went straight to our kitchen, dipped my finger in the coal stove and put my own ash mark on my forehead, not knowing what the “ash” meant – it was considered “cool” to wear it.

We can call it ashes (“abo), dirt (“alikabok”), or clay (“putik) – all of which come from the same element or basic component which we call “earth”. The idea is to remind people of their mortality, the need to be sorrowful because of sin, and the necessity of changing their lives through self-denial and penance...

I will not dig into the controversial aspects of this Catholic “custom” which with a little research will show its questionable origin. What I would like to emphasize here is the important focus God has placed on the biblical symbols of “ashes”, “dust” and “clay” which I find lacking in the outward display of piety among people today.

While the concept of "Ash Wednesday" seems to pull back man from its present reality and reminded them of their past and so-called future destination – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – it is not what God had actually plan for man from the very beginning.

Notice that the first mention of “dust” occurred in Genesis 2:7,

7 “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

Here we find a positive and creative display of power wherein out of the “clay” or dust God put man to life. From dust, life was created—which now forms its substance or reality. Notice that this is just the beginning of God’s wonderful purpose for man.

My hypothetical question: If you are like God – you are a creator of a masterpiece, or say you are an artist with a very unique and beautiful art work, like Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, or Van Gough, would you want to see your creation turned to rubble or worst, turned to dust again?

Its painfully difficult to see, right? Instead, you will painstakingly take care of it. Just like they do to the works and  masterpieces of our well known artists (Michaelangelo, et.al)—they are put in a secure place, maintained, protected and guarded.

But not man—it seems we are the only “creation” that does not know our true value and purpose, nor do we really appreciate who we are and our future potential. We emphasize what is “earthly” in man rather than its God-given potentiality.

The story in Genesis turned to a different twist when somebody broke into the scene, thus the next reference of dust was awarded to this being:

Genesis 3: 13-14:

13 “And the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the LORD God said to the serpent:
“ Because you have done this,
You are cursed more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you shall go,
And you shall eat dust
All the days of your life.”

Again, who was it who was to eat “dust” for the rest of his life? It wasn’t man, right? It was the serpent. It was the serpent who destroyed God’s masterpiece—man—which He made out of the dust. It was a fitting punishment to show that right from the very beginning, Satan’s attempt to thwart God’s plan was futile.

Genesis 3:17-19 showed the judgment God has given to man for failing to heed God:

17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’:
Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.

18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.

19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return
.”

dust_of_the_earthFirst, a “curse” was pronounced on the ground. Second, because of sin, man was consigned back to the ground. In other words, man will be utterly helpless by himself—he will be needing a “Savior” if he wants to regain his former “glory” so to speak. “For dust you are, and to dust you will return”, this is where the English phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” was taken and popularized.

The fourth mention of “dust” in Genesis occurred much, much later in Genesis 13:16, where we read that God again reverted to His plan for man. This time as He declared His covenant  with Abraham.

Genesis 13:14-16

14 “And the LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; 15 for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. 16 And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.”

Genesis 28:14 “Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

From these verses, we can establish a pattern: Where man failed through deception by the Enemy, or by failing to follow God and His words—there is but only one destination: dust or earth. But this should not be our primary preoccupation nor should we always be looking and contemplating about the dust.

We shouldn’t be like the proverbial “other prisoner” who only “sees” the mud in front of him[“Two men looked out of the same prison bars, one sees mud and the other stars.”], rather, we need to be looking up to the stars!

In Genesis  13:16; 28:14, God uses the imagery of dust to show Abraham  His unfailing plan for man: to be more than the composition that he is now, to look forward and beyond the dust and looking upward to becoming “as the stars of the heaven”.

Genesis 22:17 “In blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.”

That is why personally, I feel uneasy seeing people with ashes on their forehead. While others think it shows religiosity, I can only see false humility – bordering on being contemptuous to what God has really designed for man.

On the other hand, true and real repentance before God involves more than the use or presence of “ashes”.

The biblical application of humility and repentance is by “wearing sackcloth” as the following verses will show:

Genesis 37:34 – Jacob wore sackcloth for mourning, because of the reported death of his son Joseph. For sure, no one will exchange sackcloth for fashionable “ashes” of today.

2 Samuel 3:31 – David wore sackcloth and commanded his army to do the same, as he  mourned the death of his loyal officer Abner.

Esther 4:1-3 – Mordecai wear “sackcloth and ashes” and instructed all the Jews to wear the same after learning the conspiracy of Haman to kill all Jews.

In the New Testament, in Matthew 11:20-21 – Jesus Christ Himself alluded to the use of sackcloth for those needing repentance:

20 Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

For all these instances, it was actually the sackcloth that was the visible, outward sign or symbol of remorse and repentance. Even the prophetic “two witnesses” – which is still in the near future – will appear to be wearing “sackcloth”, (not simply “ashes” on the forehead) – symbolic of man’s inability to truly repent.

Revelation 11:3 “And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.”

But more than the wearing of sackcloth and ashes, God has better and grander plan ahead of each and everyone of us.

Instead of ashes God wants to give us “beauty for ashes”!

This “good news” was revealed to prophet Isaiah even before Christ came to fulfill it.

Isaiah 61:1-3 “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
3 To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.”

Note that these are that same verses Jesus Christ read as He fulfilled His Messiaship as recorded in Luke 4:18-19.

So if we want hope, liberty, justice, consolation, healing, joy, and peace, we can now receive them through the believing faith in the works and Messiahship of Jesus Christ—the only Savior who will restore us to our place in God’s master plan.

blossomsThrough Jesus Christ, we can receive the “oil of joy” instead of mourning, “praise” instead of heaviness and an ornament (or garland) of “beauty” instead of ashes.

Therefore, rather than being negative or project a depressing view of life as the “ashes” symbolizes, we need to be showing and expressing the victory that Christ had already won for us.

This is the context of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7-18:

 7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. 8 We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed— 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So then death is working in us, but life in you.

13 And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke,” we also believe and therefore speak, 14 knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. 15 For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18 while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

Indeed, a very different perspective on life coming from the word of God!

Thus, contrary to anything we could imagine and even boast about in this life, rather than being seen as dust or worthless clay, it is this very same imperfect earthly material that our Creator God uses to hold the “beauty” of God’s glory—now to be seen in us.

This was made possible because Christ Himself was covered in the “ashes of human mortality” so to speak, and tasted death so that our imperfections might be made perfect through His sacrifice.

Hebrews 20:8-11 "You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”

For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. 9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren…”

Again in 1 Corinthians 15:12-26:

"Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. 14 And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

"But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.

So, “beauty for ashes” or beauty instead of clay, dust or ashes—and not the oft familiar phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—was the message of hope Jesus Christ brought and proclaimed. This we must also ought to do, for this is our hope, liberty, consolation, and victory in God’s coming kingdom.

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