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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

Ash Wednesday

The six-year-old went to church with his mom on Ash Wednesday and after hearing the psalm verse—the psalm we prayed today— “For he himself knows where of we are made, he remembers that we are but dust,” turned to his and said in a stage whisper, “Mommy, what is butt dust?”

Dust is at the forefront of this service. 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. In the early church, those who were recognized as public sinners, dressed in sack cloths and ashes and banned from worship, began the road to repentance to be reunited again with the faith community through absolution at the Great Vigil of Easter.

That extreme measure of reforming sinners lost its appeal, the practice ended and Lent was for a time reduced to a period of just one week. When it became clear that Christians were more devoted to their comforts than to religion, the Church decided it had better extend a wake-up call and announced a six-week season of Lent, a word that in the Old English means “spring.

Lent is, therefore, meant to be a springtime for the soul, a time of spiritual rejuvenation. Modeled after the forty days and nights Jesus spent in the desert, it is the time of year designed to clean our spiritual “house,” cleanse us of the clutter and open our eyes to what remains when all is said and done and all the comforts are gone: dust.

Even so, if we focus solely on the ashes we wear 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 were are still living. They tell us to take a good look at our life—and everything about it—to be grateful and to take nothing at all for granted.

The movie, The Bucket List, stars Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman who play 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 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 said 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:

hatever 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. I wonder if we can we put a new slant on Lent this year. During the coming weeks, let’s make an effort to look for the joy in our life.

We don’t need to be ready to kick the bucket in order to make our “Bucket list.” Can we take some time to make a brief list for ourselves this Lent. Where will we look to find that joy—in our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our work, our church, our friends, or any place where we find those moments of unexpected grace for therein lies the real treasures.

The ashes of Lent are not 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 find anew the joy in it. What we choose to do in Lent is not meant to change the world; it is meant to change us.

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