As ashes are applied to the forehead on Ash Wednesday, a Biblical phrase is said to each worshiper:
"Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:19). Those words remind us that without God, we are simply dust and ashes. Death is the end. The grave is a dusty dead end. This messy smudge in the shape of a cross reminds us of our fragile lives in a fragile world. The season urges us to turn and return to the source of abundant life.
As I am writing this reflection, my mother is in her last hours of this earthly life. Her comment as people come into the room is: "I am going home." Yes, her body is destined to dust, but her Christian faith believes this is not the end. There is more. The Lenten season proclaims the reason for this living hope. We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ both now and forever. In a sober consideration of our mortality, we face temptations along with Christ that would detour us from living in newness of life in our earthly life. Lent invites us to invite the Spirit to breathe life more fully into lives that are nothing but dust and ashes without that life-giving Spirit.
The service of Ash Wednesday looks at everything in our lives that threatens to turn our lives to dust. The solemn confession of this day serves as one bookend of the forty-day Lenten season. The bookend at the end of the season is Maundy Thursday, where there is an equally full stress on God's life-giving forgiveness and reconciliation both with God and with each other. As the ashes are applied to each individual on Ash Wednesday with a solemn confession, the declaration of forgiveness with laying on of hands stresses that we are reconciled, redeemed, forgiven and released from the bondage of the dust bowl of death.
People who have had a bowel or urinary blockage know that it has to be removed or one becomes very sick unto death. This Lenten season is a time to deal with the blockages in relationship to God, to ourselves, and to people with whom we live. Sin sucks the life out of us. The following texts invite us to a spiritual examination and forty days of healing therapy.
Time to Return Home: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
The prophet sounds a trumpet calling all the people from infants to honeymooners to a solemn constructive assembly. It is time to return to God with all one's heart. Fasting, weeping and mourning are appropriate as we consider how we have strayed from God. As if to challenge our use of ashes, the prophet calls worshipers to rend the heart, not their clothing. The point is that outward rituals and actions can camouflage and hide unrepentant and deceitful hearts. Don't fool others or yourself. The prophet proclaims that such a turning around is not giving something up for Lent but discovering anew the source of life in the gracious, merciful, slow to anger, steadfast love of a blessing God.
No "Get Out of Jail Free" Card: Psalm 51
Psalm 51 is the classic confession that exempts no one from a call to repentance. Attributed to King David after his adultery with Bathsheba and his sending her husband into harm's way, this psalm shows that even those in political power or in places of influence are not exempt from accountability before God and the community.
Lent has been a time in the church when candidates for baptism have been learning what it means to be joined to Christ in the waters of baptism. This psalm points to that washing and cleansing begun in our baptism. It may also remind us of the baptismal structure or pattern of our daily lives. Every day in repentance we drown the old rebellious person within us and rise in Christ to the promise of newness of life. We face the prison of our sinful natures and learn of Christ's freeing us from bondage.
Called to Be an Ambassador: II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Lent is a time to speak frankly (v.11) and to examine our connections to the living waters of our own baptisms. It was in that event of water with the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit that we were inducted into the mission of Jesus Christ. St. Paul speaks about God making his appeal through us as ambassadors of Christ. This ambassadorship is not without risk or hardship. Despite the challenge, we serve as people "having nothing, yet possessing everything" (2 Cor. 6:10). The first Sunday in Lent reminds us to resist the temptations to avoid our call to God's mission, our ambassadorship, as Jesus stayed on course despite the enticing, deceptive temptations put before him.
Praying for an Audience?: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Prayer, impressive offerings and religious activities are not meant to impress others about how spiritual we are. Public prayer, proportionate giving and significant service are expressions of a deep inner immersion in God's grace, which always flows out in loving acts and expressions. Jesus seems to say here: Would you still pray or give offerings or do acts of mercy if you did not have an audience to impress in order to gain their accolades?
In fact, this word from Jesus and this Lenten season seek to more fully connect heart and hand, words and deeds so that the Gospel words and Gospel deeds are calibrated for the sake of the world God loves. Our prayers, offerings, deeds and words are not to impress an audience, but to embody the Gospel as ambassadors of Christ in every situation of life.