It’s Lent. For years now I’ve always waited with anticipation for Advent, but haven’t had the same excitement for Lent. I’m not sure that excitement is the exact word, but this year I’ve felt the need to do some deep soul work and have been anticipating this season. My soul has felt cluttered and unfocused. Really, there’s nothing like having ashes put on your forehead and being reminded that you are dust, “and to dust you shall return” to help, even if for a day, to remind you of what is important.
For several years I’ve wanted to go to an Ash Wednesday service. I’ve realized the significance of this day for several years now but, for one reason or another, have never made it out to a service. This year I found a church that was having a service and made plans to go. My wife and I talked and decided that it would be good to go as a family. The plan was to meet at my office at 11:30am and leave from there to go to the St. Andrew’s in the Pines Episcopal Church in Peachtree City. As is, unfortunately common for us, we were running late. We decided that it would be best if I went first and saved seats for them. I pulled into the parking lot of this gorgeous building and property and made my way to the sanctuary. It was a surprisingly small sanctuary for such a large building and therefore quite difficult to be inconspicuous. I sat down and quickly realized that I forgot to pick up the bulletin that contained the liturgy. I felt like I was in a foreign land without a map. After handing the bottle of milk at my feet back to the young mother behind me I asked her where I might find the bulletin. Not long after I got a copy and returned to my seat Marisa arrived with the kids.
The service was quiet in the right sort of way and the liturgy was beautiful and doing it’s work in me. I could feel it. Finally the time came of the Imposition of the Ashes. Not everybody get’s this. Why focus on death? Simply put, it reminds us that we aren’t here forever. Life is gift and what we do with it matters. Our society trains us to live in the “eternal now,” but Ash Wednesday forces us to remember that the future will not always have us in it. This is tough, but it’s also truth. And perhaps the truth can, indeed, set us free. But free from what? Perhaps from the treadmill-life that we’ve been taught by the world to live, and free instead to live a pilgrim-life as we’ve been taught to live by the church. So I made my way towards the front, watching those ahead of me to make sure I was doing it right when I realized that my son was in line with us. He told me the night before that he wasn’t sure that he wanted to do this, but I guess he kind of got swept up in the tide so we held hands and walked towards the front together. He and I got the last two places at the altar where we knelt as the girls and Marisa stood behind us waiting for a place. I had my hand on his back. I guess I had been thinking about how I would be impacted when the priest put the ashes on my head–my soul, my clutter, my need for God’s voice to speak anew–but I hadn’t thought through him putting the ashes on my son until it happened. Spencer has hair down to his eyebrows so the priest smiled and gently pushed his hair aside as he smeared the ashes on his forehead. Then he spoke those terrible words to my five year old son: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” I didn’t want to dwell on that for too long.
Some of us need reminders of mortality today. Others don’t. Yesterday marked the anniversary of my brother-in-laws passing. David Ellis was a smart, talented, funny, and loved 18 year old who died tragically in a work place accident. Too soon, Lord. On his birthday two years ago my wife and I had the privilege of leading worship at the funeral of a beautiful girl named Emma who died of Leukemia. Again Lord, far too soon. And perhaps we can ask the question we asked earlier but in a more focused way: what is the point of putting ashes on your head and hearing those words when the world already filled tragic loss? While some of us who are stuck in the eternal now need to be reminded that we are but dust and ashes, others need to be reminded that we are dust and ashes, but we are dust and ashes that are filled with the very breath of God. Atheism would have us believe that we are accidental dust–that it’s all coincidental meaninglessness and when it’s over it’s over. Lent is not that. Never that. Lent is the journey to Easter. It’s a difficult journey to be sure, but it ends with resurrection.
So if you are like me and your soul has become cluttered this year, may you hear the words in your own heart tonight: From dust you came and to dust you shall return.
But for those who are all too familiar with dust, may you feel the deep love and compassion of God. May the very real hope of resurrection never be too far from you as you journey. May it fill your clouded days, and be your fire by night.
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.