"Beloved, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
These words, from Genesis 3:19, are at the core of the purpose of Ash Wednesday. The Rev. E. Barbara Gibson repeated them to each person who went forward for ashes at the noon service Wednesday at Bethel Lutheran Church in Biloxi.
"It is to prepare us for Lent, the season before Easter," she said before the service. "It helps us to remember we are sinners and that we all need a savior, and that is our Lord Jesus Christ. With the ashes, we confront the reality of our deaths, but Communion is our promise of God's grace."
The ashes were mixed with coconut oil and myrrh. Myrrh, an aromatic resin and one of the three gifts presented to the Christ child by the wise men, traditionally was used to prepare a body for funerals.
Ash Wednesday services are a time for "peace and retrospection," Gibson said before a brief period of silence. In her sermon, she noted many people have a "bad case of 'the wants.'" Drawing from Matthew 6, she pointed out examples.
"The first thing people wanted was praise" for praying and giving alms in public, she said. The second was recognition and notoriety, and the third was sympathy with recognition. Today, that might be compared to making a big deal about giving up chocolate for Lent, she said.
"Don't be like these hypocrites who do this for recognition," she said. "They've received their reward from human beings. Jesus says when you fast and pray, do so quietly, in humility, in private."
For Lent, the 40 days before Easter Sunday, many people give up something they enjoy or to which they have become accustomed, but Gibson offered an alternative.
"Someone said they didn't give up something -- they took on an hour of prayer each day," she said. "So you are giving up an hour of time you might devote to something else and giving it to God instead. Consider taking on something."