I have always resonated with the season of Lent and in particular, Ash Wednesday which starts this season of the Church Year. The season of Lent is sometimes understood to be penitential, and some traditions understand Lent to be a time of giving things up in order to draw closer to Christ through what I call “small scale suffering.” Lent is also understood to be a time of contemplation, and historically, has been a time of preparation for baptism. For me, and my tradition, Lutheran Christians, it is a time of drawing closer to God in preparation for bearing witness to Christ’s death on a cross and what that act means for us. The crucifixion is the vanquishing of the finality of death, but also represents the passage from death into life. You cannot skip the suffering.
Personally, I resonate with Ash Wednesday because we are given the opportunity to name, without qualification, that we are mortal. That at the end of this life lies death. That no matter how we try or what we do, life ends the same for all of us. That when we are marked with ashes on our forehead and our preacher proclaims, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”
It’s the one day in the church year where Christians slow down enough to notice the ever forward movement towards death that begins at our birth. Where so many other people get to witness what I witness every single day in the chaplain trade…that death is inescapable.
It’s hard to see this as good news.
That no matter what you do or where you go or how many life-prolonging procedures you might undergo, you too will die. Just like everyone else. Exceptionalism is a farce when it comes to death. There is often a lot of frenetic activity up until the moment a patient or family recognizes that death is inevitable. Then, time seems to open up and expand and be intense and emotional, in a way that happens at no other time. Its a Kairos time instead of a Chronos time. There is freedom when we look death into the face.
Ash Wednesday represents freedom to me. Freedom from the burden of fighting mortality. Freedom to say boldly, “I cannot save myself.”
The Gospel text for this day, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, seems to call out all those practices, such as almsgiving, fasting, and so on, that would make you publicly appear to draw closer to God. Jesus uses the word “beware” in this text. Because activities will not bring you rewards or everlasting life or comfort. You cannot orchestrate your own salvation through the things that you do. The only thing you have to do is the most difficult there is, which is to surrender.
And Ash Wednesday is a profound surrender. Dwell deep in the fact that you are mortal…you are dust….and to dust….you shall return.