(Shared at Alger First UMC on 2/10/2016, Ash Wednesday)
Tonight, on Ash Wednesday, we are called to do two things: embrace our mortality, which we will do through the Imposition of Ashes in a few minutes; and acknowledge and turn away from our sins, which we will do through a time of confession after that.
Now, this work of acknowledging and turning away from our sins-I can understand the need for that. The church has historically understood the need for confession, repentance, and forgiveness. But embracing our mortality with the Imposition of Ashes is something that I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around. It seems like such a doomy symbol.
In a few minutes, I’m going to invite you all forward. And on each of your foreheads, I’m going to make a cross out of these ashes, made from the palm leaves we used for Palm Sunday last year. I will say “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We embrace our mortality by being reminded that our body will one day cease to exist in this form, like the palm leaves that were burned for these ashes. It will be broken down and reunite with the earth.
That’s really depressing.
But I think there’s truth here.
What does it really mean to embrace our mortality? What does it mean for us when we are confronted with the fact that we will one day be no more than these ashes? I’ve done some thinking on that this week. For me, what I find here in these ashes, which will be crossed on my forehead as well, is the call to live a different kind of life. I will one day be no more than ashes and dust. So I am called to operate under the reality that I have one life to live. And I want to make the most of it.
We hear that sentiment all the time. We only have one life to live, so let’s make the most of it. But whenever I hear that phrase, it’s usually followed by suggestions that aren’t actually very helpful. This isn’t done by making the most money I can make, being as popular as I can be, getting the highest position I can get in my job, getting all of the stuff I want. No. Because all of that will
Because all of that will end when I go back to being dust. If I want to make the most of my life, I must throw myself headlong into the river of God’s love. I must follow Christ with everything I have and everything I am, without looking back.
We are called join ourselves to this mystical body called the church. We are called to join our efforts with all of the believers alive now and all of them who have gone before us and all who will come after us. And maybe, if we all grab hold of this reality-that we are dust and to dust we shall return so let’s make the most of this life- just maybe we’ll be able to bring the Kingdom of God down to this place.
Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, lifting up the oppressed, giving a voice to the voiceless, this is the life Christ calls us to live. And this is how I’m going to make the most of my life. So that when I return to the dust and ashes, I will know that the love of God has shown through me and illuminated the way for others to find true life.
During the season of Lent, which we begin tonight, we’re going to be journeying toward our baptism at Easter. At baptism, we are claimed as part of God’s family. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, the grace of God is available to us, the grace that comes to us at our baptism and claims us as children of God and members of God’s Holy Family, the church. We are going to be journeying toward the new life that is found in Jesus Christ, the one who has defeated death, the one in whom we have new life through our baptism.
But we begin this journey where we must-by embracing our mortality.
We only have one life.
We have come from the dust.
We will return to the dust.
So why don’t we embrace that fact and make this life count? Not by living a life controlled by our brokenness and addictions and fears, but by leaving all of that aside and setting our sights on the freedom and grace and love and mercy that is given to us, over and over again, by our God through Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
O God of dust and ashes, of forgiveness and mercy,
You have marked us as followers of your Son, Jesus Christ
And you keep calling us forward
To begin again the journey of discipleship.
In embracing our mortality, may we find new life;
And in confessing our sins, may we find true forgiveness,
So that we may begin this journey
Towards our baptism into the death and resurrection
Of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.
In the name of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ
And through the power of the Holy Spirit,
We offer this prayer to you, O God. Amen.