“For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.”
Let’s face it. Ash Wednesday is pretty low on the popularity scale. We may need to find some humor in it so as not to become overly morose—like the story of the young boy who went to church with his mom and after hearing the psalm verse: “For he himself knows whereof we are made, he remembers that we are but dust,” turned to her and said in a stage whisper, “Mommy, what is butt dust?”
Today our foreheads get smudged with a dribble of dirty soot and we hear those dreadful and alarming words: "You are dust, and to dust you will return” and quickly confronted with a daunting list of all the things we've done and left undone—and for which we ask forgiveness. It’s not pretty, but what we do today is a very ancient rite.
So, as much as we do not like to face such a reality, Ash Wednesday shouts at us to acknowledge our mortality, our humanity, our transience. None of us are going to get out of this life alive. We are always confronted by that truth, aren’t we? Yet, if we focus on the ashes we wear only as a sign of the inevitability of our death—we’ve missed the point. The ashes of Lent are not meant so much to remind us that we're dying—but that we are still living. They tell us to take a good look at our life—and everything about it—and to take nothing at all for granted.
In the movie, The Bucket List, staring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, this dynamic duo plays Edward Cole and Carter Chambers, two older gents who end up in a cancer ward together. Edward is a crusty, no-nonsense billionaire, while Carter is a kindly auto mechanic who can't help but answer questions on Jeopardy! before the contestants do. They hit it off right away.Bottom of Form Good thing, too, because they have been given less than a year to live. As their hospital stay is about to end, the two decide to make the most of their last days. To do that, they come up with a "bucket list" - that is, a bunch of things to do before “kicking the bucket.”
For Carter, the list is an opportunity to get philosophical - do someone some good, laugh until it hurts, see something truly grand. But crass old Edward has other ideas, most of them to do with living in the moment. He wants to hunt big game, climb a tall mountain, stick it to someone who deserves getting stuck. In the end, Carter dies rather suddenly but not before leaving a note for his new found sidekick to be opened after his death—the essence of which is this: Whatever you put on your list, remember to find the joy in your life.
I pray that Lent will be a time for us to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves. Look for the joy in your life, not just the things that make you feel good. You will know it when, in its presence you feel a sense of peace, of hope, and an awesome awareness of grace.
Writing about this, Karoline Lewis of Working Preacher says”
“In the past, I have called into question the notion of giving up something for Lent and instead, invited a decision on, something to embrace. Not something “to do” but something “to be.” Something that gives you joy, that nurtures you. It’s okay to have joy during Lent. It’s okay to think about how well you take care of yourself during Lent. It’s okay to imagine a Lent that does not have as its primary mood that of sacrifice. Your starting point for Lent matters.
You can suffer through Lent. Or, you can choose to move through Lent from a place of wonder and gratitude—where God might show up, what God might reveal in this dormant time, this time set aside so as to anticipate life, a time that looks forward to glimpses of the new creation. Gratitude for the certainty of resurrection when much of life seems devoid of its truth.”
The ashes of Lent are not only about death. They are about life—yes, a life that has its limits and that will one day end— but they offer us a season in which to reflect on what we have chosen to do with that life and to discover again the joy in it.