I’ll be honest – Ash Wednesday caught up with me this year. Even though it’s later than it often is, even though Cathy and I started talking about and planning for Lent months ago, other things just “got in the way.” Family, illness, sermons, taxes…this terrible weather…anything and everything seemed to offer me the chance to focus less on Lent and more on, well, me.
And in the midst of all of that, Ash Wednesday found me. Today is the day that many Christians around the world begin Lent, the season of preparation for Easter, with the sign of the cross on their forehead. With a reading from Matthew that seems almost contradictory, at times, when it tells us to pray in secret, to fast in secret, that when we put stuff on our face we should wash it off, lest it seem like all the stuff we’re doing is about us.
I’ll admit – there have been years when I’ve really struggled with this passage. Years when it seemed like Lent was more about chocolate or coffee – or whatever you decided to give up – than anything else, when the only reason it seemed that most folks went to an Ash Wednesday service was for the visible proof on their forehead that they went to church. It was as if this smudge of dirt on our foreheads suddenly turned into a neon sign that said “Christian coming through!” and so went against everything that Jesus just taught us. At least, that’s how it had seemed to me.
Except, of course, that’s not the point. A practice that’s been around for over 1,000 years doesn’t continue to exist simply because of a few people who don’t quite get it. The purpose of Lent is to encourage each other to intentionally give more, or forsake more; to notice what separates us from God and the rest of humanity, to deliver us from the debilitating and exorbitant self-consciousness that dogs our lives.
And so on Ash Wednesday, we begin this journey of self-reflection with the recognition that "you are dust, and to dust you will return." The world does not revolve around us. We came from something plain, bland, and dirty. And you know what? The world will keep going after we're gone, too. In Hebrew, the word for dust is adamah. Does that word remind you of something? I know that name. You are Adam. "Then the Lord God formed man (adam) from the dust (adamah) of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man (adam) became a living being." (Gen. 2:7) We are the same as Adam. We are who we are--so much more than dust--because God breathed into us. Because God's life lives in us.
With this recognition, we begin to prepare for Easter. Easter, the day we recognize that God became man, lived among us, suffered a horribly violent death, and rose again. That one sentence shapes who we are as Christians. It's a game-changer. Death does not have the final word. Life does. Salvation is possible. “Salvation” for self-absorbed creatures like us means finally – or at least intermittently! – to lose our precious selves in the other: the other who is the recipient of our alms, the Other who hears our prayers, the others who wonder what our religion really comes down to if not just more public promotion and self-display.
How could Lent change you?
The early saint of the church, Irenaeus of Lyons, is known to have said that "The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.” We are meant to live. We are meant to take the dust from which we are made and live through the breath, the spirit, that God breathed into us. Lent is a time to clear the path between you and God that gets muddied through all the work, stress, and stuff that our world finds more important.
Where is God's glory in you?
And that's where Ash Wednesday found me. I am dust, and to dust I will return. The only reason we are who we are is because God breathed life into us. And if we work for the next 40 days to recognize that, maybe--just maybe--we'll meet the Easter story as the fully alive human beings that our glorious God deserves.
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