– a reflection by Rev. John Wilson, from his weekly email blast –
The Christian tradition marks the beginning of Lent with ashes placed on one’s forehead in the sign of the cross. Ashes are chosen because they convey two meanings. One is that ashes are the symbol of our morality. At the funeral service as the casket is lowered into the ground we hear the words, “earth to earth; ashes to ashes; and dust to dust.”
Often we go through life one day at a time, moving from week to week and month to month as if our days will go on forever. We live as if we were immortal. We act as if our lives will never come to an end.
But that, of course, is an illusion. Our days on this earth are in fact numbered. One day they will come to an end – perhaps sooner than we think – but surely sooner than we’re ready for them to end.
Ash Wednesday is the day the church bids us to stop and think about the direction in which are lives are headed. We’re invited to look at the big picture and remember that we, too, are mortal. We, too, one day will die.
Psalm 90 bids us to “so number the days of our lives that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” And Bradford Smith points out that “no one has ever reached maturity until she has faced the fact of her own death, and shaped her way of living accordingly.” Shape our way of living accordingly…
Death can be a great teacher of wisdom, for death can reveal to us those things in life that are deepest. As long as we imagine that we will go on forever in this life, how easy it is merrily to skip across the surface of things, bouncing from one amusement to the next.
But once we pause and let the truth sink in – that I, too, am mortal – then the preoccupation with petty things is revealed for the foolishness that it is. The frantic rush to accumulate “things” or money or power is exposed for the shallowness that it is, and we are then set free to see clearly what’s truly important in life, and to focus on those things that are lasting and deep and eternal.
In view of the triumphant attitude Christianity has toward death, it’s strange that most people don’t want to think about it and avoid it as a topic of conversation. Yet it is of the very essence of our faith that death is not the end of life. Death will happen to us, but it is not the final word. We are Easter people. Our faith is an Easter faith. Death is not an enemy to be feared.
Yet death does frighten us, and perhaps it ought to! I think that’s where the second meaning of the ashes on our forehead comes in. Ashes are a symbol of our uncleanness. We are soiled. Stained. Impure. Unclean. As one prayer of confession puts it: “I have done those things which I ought not to have done, and I have left undone those things which I ought to have done.”
And as Psalm 51 states, “Have mercy on me, O God. According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgression. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”
The ashes thus become a symbol both of our mortality and of our soiled lives where “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The two things go together. They are rolled into one.
Part of me says, “Don’t think about it! It’s morbid and heavy and deadly to go around with that negative and life-denying attitude.” But another part of me says, “Yes, think long and hard and deeply about it – because it’s not too late. John: you still have time to change. You still have time to do something about it – but only if you stop and think about the road you are on. In what direction is my life going? Wake up, now, before it’s too late!”
Jesus said, “I am come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly!” Listen to His words. He holds out the promise of abundant life. Listen to those words. Ash Wednesday was the beginning, and Lent is a time when we can grab hold of that promise. Let the Lenten journey toward new life begin by owning the ashes of our morality and uncleanness!
~ Rev. Dr. John Wilson
Rev. Wilson writes a weekly reflection for everyone to read. If you would like to receive these message via email, sign up for our email list.