In the preparation for tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday service, in some recent deaths that struck close to home, and in the remembering of dear friends and saints now departed in the faith I have found my thoughts going back again and again to dust and ashes. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They are the words of the day come tomorrow. So perhaps I can be forgiven, if when in our church we celebrated Philip Melanchthon today my first thought was of his grave in Wittenberg. Many years ago I had the privilege of standing beside it, there before the steps of the chancel, right across the isle from the resting place of Martin Luther.
Yet strangely, remembering Philip in this way is not morbid, nor simply the product of being overwhelmed by my preparations for Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Good Friday observances. For standing before the grave of this confessor, this faithful Christian, I was (and still am) struck by the beauty and poignancy of the image. For even though we, like Philip, are dust and to dust we must return, there is more to his – and our – story. It can be summarized in the equally well known dust and ashes wording from our funeral services. “We now commit the body of our brother to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It was in this resurrection faith that Philip Melanchthon lived and worked, and confessed and died. It was in this faith that he was buried in the sanctuary of his church, before the altar of his Lord. It was this faith he wrote about when he said:
On account of this promised seed [Christ] their sins were forgiven them and they would be set free from sin and from eternal death. Through this faith they were righteous, not through the fulfillment of the Law. By this faith they were raised up in all dangers and terrors. Indeed they knew that this Lord was present with them … All triumphs against our adversary, the devil, are imparted through this Son. Noah was preserved, Abraham defended, Joseph brought out of prison, the people freed from Egypt … Thus the Gospel of the apostles preaches Christ, and testifies that He is the sacrificial victim, liberator, and Saviour, and commands us to trust this leader and liberator.
As we prepare ourselves for the dust and ashes of tomorrow, and the journey of faith and repentance called lent, let us do so with this picture of Philip Melanchthon – Lutheran, Christian, Confessor, patiently awaiting the promised resurrection of all flesh. Even though his body is now little more than dust and ashes, his confession shines as brightly as ever, and his faith remains stronger than ever. For this very same preserver of Noah, defender of Abraham, and emancipator of Joseph was (and is!) the Redeemer – the sure and certain hope – of Philip Melanchthon, and all we who follow in this faith. A faith in the One who justified Philip in his life of faith … and the one who will came again to raise him, along with us all, from the ashes of death.
The Church from You, dear Master, Received the gift divine; And still that light is lifted O’er all the earth to shine. It is chart and compass That, all life’s voyage through, Mid mists and rocks and quicksands still guides, O Christ, to You. (LSB # 523:2)