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When most of us hear the words "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return", chances are we are think of funerals, and certainly these words are spoken at most funerals in one form or another. But they are also the words spoken by the priest when he or she uses ashes (usually derived from last years' palm crosses) mixed with oil or water to mark people with the sign of the cross. So why do we speak them on Ash Wednesday? What does this phrase have to do with the beginning of Lent?
Lent is one of my favourite seasons, and it is the season, unfortunately, from which most non-Christians derive the notion that we are a people that likes to punish or deprive themselves.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
True, Lent often sees Christians giving up a luxury or two for the 40 days of Lent (there are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but Sundays are Sabbaths/fast days anyway, so they don't count), but the reason why we do is life-giving and affirming, not self-denying.
The 40 days of Lent are meant to reflect Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness immediately following his baptism. Having accepted his call by God, he had to they figure out what it was God wanted him to do exactly, and how he was supposed to go about it. We are told that he fasted for 40 days (this does not mean that he didn't eat for 40 days, fasts usually last from sunrise to sunset), and that he was tempted...more on that in this Sunday's sermon:) Fasting and solitude have long been aids to prayer and meditation in many cultures and religions, and it seem that this what what Jesus was doing, as he came out of the wilderness with a direction and a mission, and he seems to have set immediately after it.
See, when we fast or give up something at Lent, the idea is not that we are punishing ourselves. Lent is a somber season, perhaps, in that it is not marked by joyful feasts and celebrations, our liturgies drop their "Allelujahs" and "Glorias", but by no means is this a punishment.
The idea is twofold: first, we are encouraged to dedicate the time and money we would otherwise spend on that which we have given up in order to direct that money and energy elsewhere, either towards prayer, meditation, volunteering, charity, self-improvement, and so on. This in and of itself can be life-altering, and will take us out of the season of Lent with a greater sense of purpose and direction in our lives.
Second, breaking the Lenten fast on Easter morning after abstaining from whatever we have chosen as a Lenten discipline gives us a greater appreciation for what it was we put aside for a while.
The significance of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a subject of some discussion. There are Biblical precedents, and some cultures still place ash or dust on their heads when they are mourning. We usually place soil on coffins or urns before we bury them. So why the reminder? Why are we being asked to contemplate our own mortality during Lent?
Ash Wednesday energizes me. It personally reminds me that I don't have forever. I don't have forever to mend a broken relationship. I don't have forever to tell that person I love them. I don't have forever to take that trip I have always wanted to take. I don't have forever to complete my bucket list.
Rather than being a time of death, Lent is a time of life, and life abundant at that. It is a time where we take the time to be calm and gather energy for the coming seasons of life, where we remind ourselves that spring is on the way, and life is about to come back to the landscape.
Lent is a season of repentance, and part of the definition of repentance is to "feel remorse for past sins", but the other half of the definition is equally important: "such as produces and amendment to lifestyle".
See, Lent is not about beating ourselves up. It is about taking a moral inventory and dedicating ourselves to giving up that which is not working for us. It is perhaps about death, only insofar as we put old way to death, but to make room for new life.
Have a great journey.