Ash Wednesday caught me somewhat by surprise this year because it is so early. Sometimes Lent doesn’t begin until mid-March. In spite of the suddenness of it all, yesterday’s Ash Wednesday services reminded me why this season is so fundamental to the Christian journey.
First, we begin by remembering what we really are—dust! Our culture does everything possible to make us forget our true identity. The message of the culture is that it is not enough for us to be dependent, fragile dust. It is not enough to be someone whose life is totally dependent on the breath of God (Gen. 2:7). No. We are encouraged to be self-reliant, self-sufficient, tough, and impressive, all of which leads to destructive competition and conflict with other people who have forgotten who they truly are.
Secondly, we remember that we are mortal. It was probably more than coincidental that I forgot to mention that point in the evening version of yesterday’s sermon. Remembering that we are going to die is easy to forget. Our culture convinces us that we can live forever. Eat well, exercise, see your doctor, take the right meds, and you will live forever. A father of three in our neighborhood died this week of cancer at age 55. We are all mortal and there are no guarantees about how long we will live.
Thirdly, we remember that God’s mercy is stronger than our sin: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us (Ps 103: 12).” In case you didn’t realize it, that is pretty far. Lent isn’t a long slog to forgiveness. Lent begins with the proclamation of God’s mind blowing mercy, and then invites us to live these forty days being sustained by that mercy.
Fourthly, this Sunday we will remember what we should rely on as we continue our ministry. This Sunday the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to sort out what he will rely on as he began his ministry. The devil tempts him with economic power (turning stones into bread), political power (authority over the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping the devil), and religious power (jumping from the pinnacle of the temple and God saving him). Jesus refuses all three and opts for trusting in God alone. So we too are invited to examine where we put our trust—economic, political and religious power, or God.
Finally, as we begin Lent we remember that the cross looms large in the distance. We remember as we begin this journey that it doesn’t end well. We remember that following Jesus isn’t a recipe for prosperity, the good life, and success. We remember that whatever this journey is about it doesn’t fit into our usual categories. We remember that these forty days and holy week will challenge us at the very core of our being, and change us.