The ashes for which this holy day is named, with which your countenance is marked, are a sign of repentance because they signify and point to your death. There is nothing heroic in making this confession; it is simply the truth. You are mortal. You are dying, as you must, because you are a sinner. So much for your ambitions, your accomplishments, and your accumulated wealth.
Your mortality and death are the necessary consequence and punishment of your sin, which goes far deeper than your behavior to the very heart and soul of you. Conceived and born in sin, you are unholy and unclean, not only at odds with God but unable and unwilling to seek Him out or draw near to Him. And yet, because you cannot escape His presence, His holiness consumes you.
But, above all, the holiness of the Lord your God is mercy. So He does not allow death to be or to have the last word, but He takes death itself into His hands to become the remedy and solution to your sin. For one thing, your dying brings an end to your sinfulness and sinning. As St. Paul says, the one who has died is freed from sin. But that would hardly be a happy ending, if that were it. Your death would not make things right, put things back together, or bring you to God in peace. However, what your death could not achieve, the death of Christ has done for you and for all.
The Lord your God does not desire your death, nor the death of any sinner, but that you would be set free from sin and death, and that you would live without sin, holy and righteous before Him. Therefore, the Father has given His own dear Son, and the beloved Son has given Himself, even unto death, in order to atone for your sin by His Sacrifice upon the Cross, by the shedding of His sacred Blood on your behalf. And having done so in holy faith and holy love, His Resurrection from the dead is now your Righteousness, in which you are raised up to newness of life in Him.
As you have been taught by the Word and Spirit of God, you share in the death and resurrection of Christ by your Holy Baptism. That is why the ashes are signed upon your forehead in the shape of His Cross, recalling His Sacrifice for you and your Baptism into Him, that you have died with Him, and that your life is hidden with Christ in God. Although you are still sinful, and your mortal body is still dying, returning to the dust from which you have been taken, yet, you are set free from the power of sin and death. You are alive, and you are righteous in Christ Jesus, by faith in Him.
When you know that your righteousness is by this faith in Christ, and not by your own works or efforts, then you also know how to practice your righteousness rightly. It is to live by faith under the Cross of Christ in the hope of His Resurrection from the dead. It is a righteousness that cannot be seen by men; neither can you see it in yourself. But it is exercised in faith as you bear the Cross of repentance for your sin, and as you bear the Cross in love for your neighbor. Dying to yourself, you live unto God, and you live for those around you, not to impress them, but to care for them.
This baptismal life is your whole burnt offering, the sacrifice of your whole body and life, which you render upon the atoning Sacrifice of Christ Jesus. By repentance and faith in His Cross and Resurrection, you are offered up, given up, and given over entirely to God. You are consumed by the fire of His Spirit, but so also purged of your idolatries and purified by the holiness of Christ. And the smoke that rises from this sacrifice is pleasing and acceptable to the Lord your God, as surely as the Father has received His Son back from the dead and seated Him at His right hand.
Of particular interest on this day are the ashes of the whole burnt offering, which are removed by the priest from the Lord’s Altar to a clean place outside the camp of Israel. For so do your body and life remain in this world, but no longer of it; no longer unclean because of your sins, which are removed, but cleansed and forgiven by the Blood of Christ and by His acceptable Sacrifice. Even now, in your still mortal flesh, you live and abide outside the camp with the Crucified One.
And this burnt offering of your body and life as a Christian, this living sacrifice of repentance, faith, and love, is characterized and typified by those three basic practices to which Christ Jesus refers in the Holy Gospel for this day: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Indeed, He does not teach you to avoid this fundamental piety of the Christian life, but to avoid all pretense and presumption, and to undertake these several aspects of discipleship in the fear and faith of the one true God.
To fast, to give alms, and to pray are not to be practiced as means of gaining righteousness before God or man. There is to be no bargaining with God, nor any boasting in His presence. But you are to fast, to give alms, and to pray by the righteousness of faith in Christ Jesus, because you are reconciled to God in Him; you are justified by His grace; you are cleansed and sanctified by His forgiveness; and, by your Baptism into Him, you are dead to sin and alive to God forevermore.
To fast is to reduce your consumption, to give up for awhile what you otherwise rely upon, and to deny yourself the very things you crave the most. Whatever form it takes in your life, such fasting belongs to the daily dying of repentance. For to curb your appetites in this way is to curb and put to death your flesh with its covetous idolatry, to take up the Cross, and to follow Christ by faith.
Almsgiving goes hand in hand with fasting, as you deny yourself and give what you have to others. It is, indeed, the sacrifice of yourself and the gift of yourself to your neighbor in his or her need. Not for praise and recognition, but for the sake of love, in thanksgiving to Christ, the Lord, who has given Himself entirely for you. In quiet humility, therefore, exercise mercy, and be generous in charity as you have the opportunity; so, too, forgive and do good to those who sin against you.
But neither fast nor give alms without also calling on the Name of the Lord in prayer, which is the very voice of faith. By it you lay hold of Christ in the promise of His Gospel, and you store up treasures for yourself in heaven; not by scaling the heights, but by confessing the Word He has placed upon your lips, by receiving the gifts He places in your hands, and by relying on His grace. In praying to the Father in His Name, you rise and ascend with Him who has come down from heaven to you, who has given Himself into death, who has risen and returned to the Father in glory.
Everything begins with and continues to depend upon the Sacrifice of Christ. He is the One who knew no sin, who yet became the Sin Offering for you and for the world. In flesh and blood like yours, He has offered Himself entirely to His God and Father on your behalf, in order to atone for your sins, to reconcile you to God in perfect peace, and to bring you into fellowship with Him.
Sin has been put to death, once and for all, in His crucified Body. All its impurity, perversion, and stain have been removed by His Blood. And in His Resurrection and Ascension, He has entered into the presence of God as your merciful and great High Priest. Thus do you have access in Him to the Father in heaven. Indeed, you enter the inner room of the Lord’s own House and Home, into the Holy of Holies, not made with hands but eternal in the heavens. And, like Christ Himself — because you are in Him and He in you by the Gospel — your sacrifice of repentance is a pleasing aroma and your prayer of faith is sweet-smelling incense in the nostrils of the Lord your God.
He hears and answers your prayers in mercy, with compassion and generous charity. His gives you His alms in abundance for both your body and your soul, for this life and for the life everlasting.
He restores you day by day, throughout Lent and evermore, to all the blessings and benefits of your Holy Baptism, which are indeed the fruits and benefits of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. He pours out the Holy Spirit upon you, anointing you with the true Oil of gladness. He washes you, cleanses you, and sanctifies you with the forgiveness of all your sins. He clothes you with the priestly garments of Christ, that is, with His own righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
And He feeds you at His Table with the priestly Food and Drink of Christ, which are His Body and His Blood. These Gifts are hidden from your sight, and from the sight of every man, being given as they are in the grain offering and drink offering of bread and wine. But the Body and Blood of the Lamb are truly present, given and poured out for you here at His Altar on earth, while never ceasing to appear and avail for you before your God and Father in the Most Holy Place in heaven.
Thus do we have fellowship with God in Christ, and with each other in His one Body. And thus do we give thanks to God and bless His Holy Name as we feast upon His Son in this sacrificial Meal. And our thanksgiving, too, is sanctified, acceptable, and pleasing to Him in Christ Jesus.
You are able to approach the Lord’s Altar with such confidence and joy, because you are clothed in Christ and covered by His righteousness. And by the same mercies of God in Christ, you are able to live in the world in love for your neighbor, purified within and without by the Holy Spirit. For the ashes of your perishing mortal flesh reside, even now, in a clean place with Christ Jesus; while yet, in Him, your body, soul, and spirit always live and abide in the presence of the Father.
Therefore, even now, on this day of grace, in this time of salvation, return to the Lord your God. For He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. And here in His Holy Communion is the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness, which are for you and for the many. Here is your Meat and Drink indeed. Here is not death, but your life and salvation in Christ Jesus.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.