From our Psalm today: “He redeems your life from the grave, and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness”
Today we gather to observe Ash Wednesday. We gather to remember our mortality, to repent of our sins, and to prepare ourselves for Lent. This service is a painful one-full of images of our brokenness and our sin, but it is not a service that is without hope.
Ash Wednesday and Lent provide the space for us to contemplate the darker areas of our lives. We spend so much of our time fulfilling responsibilities that need to be filled, we tend not to have a lot of time to think and pray about the larger issues that may haunt us-grief over a loved ones’ death or the end of a relationship, fear about our own deaths, concern about our separation from God. Unlike the sometimes forced cheerfulness of Christmas or Easter, Lent gives us permission to be more contemplative, less happy.
For me, Lent is a time to remember my mother’s death. She died six years ago this week. Each Lent that has followed has felt a little different. The first Lent I was still too stunned to feel much of anything. The second Lent I was angry and felt piercing sadness. By the third Lent, I had found some level of peace and resignation. In preparation for this Ash Wednesday, this Lent, I have been thinking about these words we will use in a few minutes: Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.
At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we are but flesh. My mother was dead two days before anyone found her, and the image of her abandoned, lifeless body has stayed with me as an image of the organic finality of death. The last few years, we have been overwhelmed by images of death: the victims of the Tsumani, of the war in Iraq, of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The image of an unclaimed body is a lonely one, and thousands of bodies remain unclaimed, unidentified from these disasters. What are we, in the end, but dust? A pile of molecules tentatively held together by water and energy. Or are we?
The words “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” contain more than this barren image of death. Humans do not only end as dust, we began as dust as well.
Remember you are dust. . . evokes the image of the Creator God breathing into dust to create human life. When we say Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. . .we remind ourselves that the very ground of our being both created us and will be with us when we die. We are reminded that our deaths are not a mere organic event, but are a transition-all within the scope of God’s loving care. There is no place we can run to escape the love of God. Even our deaths do not separate us from Him.
My mother was not really alone at the time of her death, and none of us will be, either. We are not alone in our grief, in our depression, in our anger, even in our loneliness. The same God who breathed life into the first man, and tenderly created the first woman, made each of us, and we rest in his loving hands throughout our entire lives. Death is not powerful enough to separate us from our Creator and Redeemer. Nothing is.
This Lent, we are invited to draw near to this God who created us with such care and affection. We repent of our sins and give up small pleasures during Lent, not because God wants to judge us, but because God wants us to draw near to him, to need him in a way we don’t often allow ourselves.
God wants to breathe life into you just as he breathed life into Adam.
He redeems your life from the grave, and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;