We are a people marked by death. The biblical story begins and ends with death. The Scriptures open with Adam's transgression in the Garden of Eden, for which the punishment is death. And it concludes with what the Book of Revelation calls the second death, the lake of fire into which Hades is thrown at the great judgment. Death is bound up with the life of creation, with the history of humanity, and consequently with the work of God in the world.
Today, Ash Wednesday, Christians around the globe bear ashes on their foreheads to remember that we are mortal. We hear the words, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” The pastor stands before us in the place of God and repeats this sobering excerpt from the Lord’s curse upon Adam and his progeny. Men, women, and children line up in rows to hear their mortality confirmed.
Ash Wednesday is the start of the Lenten season. Today we remember that we are east of Eden but short of Zion. In order to journey toward the passion of Christ in Jerusalem, we begin in the wilderness. We fast with Jesus. We suffer want, steeling the will against the suffering to come as we make our way to Golgotha.
But we also know that beyond Lent lies Easter: the Resurrection and the promise of eternal life. And so Ash Wednesday reminds us not just that we are mortal, but that the only way beyond death is through it—and that Christ has gone through death for us. We are marked by death, then, both because we are mortal and because we have already died with Christ in the waters of baptism. We have been crucified with Christ, and marked by his death. We now journey toward Easter and eternal life.
When Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land through the Jordan River, the water miraculously parted, and they walked through on dry ground. Jesus—the second and greater Joshua—also went down into the waters of the Jordan at his baptism, just before his time of fasting in the wilderness. This event prefigured his eventual plunge into the depths of hell to conquer death and the devil. Would he come out the other side? Would he rise from those depths as he rose, by the hand of the Baptist, into the blessing of the Father and the life of the Spirit?
He would. That is the word of the gospel. The gospel does not deny death; it transfigures it. Death is no longer the end, but a new beginning: a doorway into life, a passage into God. Christ, as St. Augustine writes, is both the destination and the way. Death has become, by the cross and Resurrection, the servant of Christ, who holds the keys of death and Hades in his hands. To live is Christ and to die is gain.
In the final two chapters of Revelation, the reader is taken on a whirlwind tour of the new Jerusalem, the new creation of heaven and earth in which the promise of the name “Immanuel” is fulfilled. God is with us for good. This is why there is no temple in the new creation. Creation is now the indelible dwelling place of God’s glory. It is as though the tabernacle and the land were one and the same. A voice from the heavenly throne announces, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3–4). That is the promise. That is what awaits God’s people in the end.
So we accept the ashes on our foreheads. We are a people marked by death. But not death as a power that holds sway over us. No, the death that marks us is the death of Christ on the cross. We shall die. But having been united to the Lord in the waters of baptism, we know that our death will not be the last word. The last word is Christ's, for the last death is his. By his death he put death to death, which means that the last word is eternal life. We too will dwell in that new creation described in Revelation, that new Jerusalem where the psalm of David finds its answer: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Ps. 27:4).
Brad East is assistant professor of theology at Abilene Christian University.
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