Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Remember that you are dust...

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a symbol of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

- The Book of Common Prayer, p. 265.


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our Lenten journey. It finds its root in the story of Jesus’ forty days in the desert. One way to look at Lent is to consider it our own desert pilgrimage.

We begin our journey by receiving a mark on our foreheads with ash, accompanied by the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Placing ashes on one’s head is something we see in the scriptures that was done when someone is in deep dismay, or is devastated by something they have done to another. It is a sign of penitence.

In our Christian tradition, we place these ashes on the same place on our foreheads that we were marked as Christ’s own forever when we were baptized. This season of Lent is a continuation of a journey that began when we were baptized.

The ashes also remind us of our own mortality. We too shall return to the dust. But as Christians, as people of the Resurrection, we understand that in death life is changed, not ended. We note our own mortal nature, and are encouraged to see that now is the acceptable time of the Lord; now is the time to live this life to its fullest, to become all God would have us be.

To do that; to live into the promises made at our baptism, we need to consider another aspect of the symbolism of this day. Ashes are a sign of purification. Metals are purified and tempered in a hot fire. So our lives need to be also purified and tempered.

The season of Lent is an invitation to enter the desert; to let go of some of our activities and discover the time for a desert journey; an inward journey; a journey into repentance.

Repentance is about reoriented our lives toward God. If we are not careful, if we don’t take the time for this inward journey of self examination, it becomes quite easy for us to take our focus off of God. Very slowly, without realizing it, our lives can become oriented toward some other primary thing; maybe our career, or financial security; or even a hobby. These things, in and of themselves, are not harmful. But, if we are not careful, we can become fixated on them, to the exclusion of other things, including the exclusion of God.

During this season of Lent, we are invited to take the time to look deep within ourselves, to look for the walls we may have built between ourselves and God. We ask ourselves; “What is blocking the way for me to develop a deeper relationship with God?”

We have to make space for this interior work. Making such a space is often called acts of self-denial, or fasting. We put something down to make room in our busy lives to pick something up. I am suggesting to you that one thing that we might want to “pick up” is time in the desert; time for self-examination; time to look within the crooks and crannies of our lives and seek the things that are hindering our relationship with God.

Some people find using more of their day in prayer; including a time of silence, to be a helpful tool for self-examination. Others may also free up time in their day for the study of scripture or other devotional reading. Some find acts of mercy and almsgiving to be helpful.

The first important step in observing a holy Lent is participation in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. I encourage you to not pass up this opportunity to travel with Jesus into the desert. This is the point of Ash Wednesday and Lent. We are invited to take a desert journey; an interior journey, and discover where our relationship with God is fed and where it is not. We can then repent; reorient our lives back toward God. If we have done this honestly, sincerely and carefully, the joy that will await us on the other side of our Lenten journey will be amazing!

May we observe a holy Lent, resulting in abundant Easter joy.

J.

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