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Ash Wednesday

I, (Mario), did not grow up in a confessional church that followed a church calendar. The sights, sounds, colors and rhythms of the church’s seasons was not something that a part of my spiritual formation. If I’m being honest with you all, there was a time when I believed these ancient practices were a kind of dead man’s religion. After all, where was the Spirit’s work in all of it? For me, there was little to no spiritual value in participating in these kinds of things. Or so I thought.
That shortsighted and selfish view changed instantly during my senior year at the University of Utah. My senior seminar topic was: Horrendous evils and the goodness of God. We met Wednesday afternoons. I remember my professor, Dr. Crowe, coming into the class on a particular Wednesday afternoon with something smeared across his forehead. During the first half of our class, I tried to figure out what it was. I remember thinking; “Does he know he has something on his forehead? Did anyone bother to tell him? How embarrassing.” I finally discerned that what was on his forehead was in the shape of a cross. I only then realized it was Ash Wednesday. I remember thinking, with quite a bit of pride, that I was glad that I did not need to perform such rituals in order to demonstrate my fidelity to Christ. I actually remember feeling quite sorry for my professor, thinking that he was truly spiritually impoverished and unaware that Jesus had freed us from performing religious deeds.
As I was walked out of the class that day, feeling justified about myself, my faith and my perceived sense of Christian freedom, I heard the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. He said, “Who are you to judge my servant? What he has done, he has done for me.” I knew it was the Spirit’s voice. All at once, I felt conviction, contrition and my perspective changed immediately. Interestingly enough, it was Dr. Crowe who gave me my first taste of proper theological training. (That’s another story for another time)
Fast forward many years, and here we are, embarking on another Ash Wednesday and Lenten season. As we know, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days that precede Easter. Lent calls us to the desert, as it reminds us of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness and being tempted by the Devil. For the church, it is meant to be a time for reflection, repentance (ashes were always a sign of repentance) and preparation to receive the Easter message anew. We often observe Lent by giving something up. It’s usually something we think of more like a vice: coffee, soda, sweets, social media, etc. Unfortunately, we can often treat Lent like a Christian version of a New Year’s resolution. That is to our detriment.
The good news of the Gospel is that through Jesus, heaven and earth have been reconciled once more and that we have been given the gift of participating in eternal life. This is not something we must wait until we die to enjoy, but one we have access to now. The church calendar, of which Lent is a part of, aligns us to the beat of a different drum and to dance, if you will, to the beat of a different tune. From Advent to Easter, we tell the story of Jesus again as we find them in the Gospels, from Pentecost to Christ the King Sunday, we tell the story of the church (which is still the story of Jesus). It is a reminder that the God’s purposes and plans will have the last word within human history. For that, we can all be grateful.
We live in a culture that does everything in its power to avoid the topic of our own mortality, and yet, the Christian message is honest about our present condition. So, this Ash Wednesday, as you come up for the imposition of ashes and hear the words, “From dust you came to dust you shall return,” allow the reality of your own mortality be met with the hopeful expectancy of the Easter story. Our life, which is but a vapor on this side of the resurrection, is not the end of our story. Why do we remember our own mortality? Because we called to be honest about life, the human condition and the dramatic actions of God in our world in order to rescue us.
We are called to live with this end in mind. Without Christ all would be lost. Yet, through Christ, our lives are hidden and safe with him. His life will have the last word. Though we will return to the dust, it will not be the end, nor is returning to the dust simply the beginning. We remember another truth from our story: I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
The Seven Questions:
1. Who have you ever had the privilege of sharing the love of Jesus with?
2. What might you say if someone asked you to explain why you have a cross of ashes on your forehead?
3. What kinds of spiritual disciplines could you add to your normal rhythms that might be a way to observe Lent?
4. Where are the places in your own lives that could use some honest confession and repentance?
5. Why do you think our culture does everything in its power to avoid death and mortality?
6. How have you traditionally observed Lent? What kinds of things have you given up? How did you fare?
7. How does understanding our own mortality make life more sacred and not less?
Mission Focus:
This year, as we begin the Lenten season, ask the Lord how you might add something to your life over the next 40 days that would be of benefit to our neighborhood/community. If they ask why you are doing it, tell them about God’s love for them and all of creation. As we reflect on our own mortality, let’s make the most of every opportunity.
Your Thoughts: