I don’t know if you go to a church that recognizes Ash Wednesday, or if you go to church at all, but I want to urge you to find a church that practices the imposition of ashes and go to it on Wednesday night (2/26/20). It may seem like “a Catholic thing,” but it’s not. It’s a powerful service, and a powerful reminder of your own mortality – something none of us like to face, but something we do face, nonetheless – a reminder that might help you to slow down and pay attention to the things that really matter.
The words as the ashes are placed on your forehead are a reminder of your mortality:
“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
It’s not a pleasant thought, is it? But those words, and the ashes that will be placed on your forehead, show everyone that you are dying.
And like it or not, of that truth, you can be certain: you are dying.
It’s an odd and scary thing, to be faced with your own mortality. It might be seeing a younger picture of yourself, and suddenly realizing you have gotten much older than you realized. It might be that day when you aren’t able to jump out of bed, or bounce back as quickly from an injury. It might be a funeral for someone your age or younger. Or something terrifying, like a cancer diagnosis.
Nobody wants to face death at all, let alone in themselves.
And yet, there it is.
Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.
That is the cost of sin: that nobody gets out of life alive, and every day, we are closer to death.
But while all of us come from dust and will one day return to it, there is One who is different.
There is Jesus. The Son of God, made fully human.
He did not come from dust, and He will not return there. He made the dust. And He made us.
Yet for us, He became dust.
“With grief and shame weighed down. Now scornfully surrounded, with thorns His only crown.”
Those are the opening words to the hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”
The wounded head of the One who formed us from the dust. Who then, in incomprehensible love, became dust for us. His head lain in the dust of the grave for us.
But if we do not understand why He did it, if we don’t understand what the cross and the empty tomb mean for us – then Lent is without purpose, and Easter is just another Sunday.
We often think of Lent as turning away from. We give things up for Lent. We fast. But Lent is about more than giving up coffee or meat or social media.
Lent is about turning away from something that is not God, and returning to God.
“Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster (Joel 2:13).”
Lent, truly focused, is a descent into the darkness of self. Something that – I know – can be scary.
But in the depths of your soul, you see your need for Jesus.
When you slow down and be still and are quiet enough to cry, from the depths of your being, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner! I have made such a mess of everything. I have hurt so many people. Lord, have mercy!”
Then you start to understand why Jesus went to the cross.
Then you begin to comprehend just how powerful the empty tomb is!
See, Lent is not for pretend sinners. Lent is for real, honest-to-God sinners who have failed in their love of God, who have failed in the love of their neighbor, who by God’s grace despise their sin and ache for His forgiveness – and for the strength to do better.
But then, in the midst of your sorrow, you hear God’s invitation: “Even you, even now: Return!”
Into the welcoming arms of a loving Father, begging you to turn around; to run to Him and leap into His saving embrace!
There is the true beauty of Lent, the miracle of the cross:
That He did not wait for us to return.
Like the father of the prodigal son, He came running after us!
He knew that we, on our own, could not come to Him, return to Him or even find Him, so He came to us, returned to us, and found us.
“He, who knew no sin,” became sin for us “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).”
“’Yet even now,’” declares the Lord, “’return to me with all your heart.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
Dust we are, and to dust we shall return, and so we receive the ashes. But the shape of the cross reminds us of the Savior who became dust for us. And now, we will not stay dust, but live forever together with Him; Amen.