In our tradition, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our season of Lent. And as part of this special Wednesday, I literally mark you with the symbols of Lent, ashes in the sign of the cross. And as I mark you, I will say, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
These ominous words are Biblical. In Psalm 103 we read, "As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust."
Do you ever think about or wonder whether the mark of ashes on your head, and the reading of the Psalm 103 is perhaps meant for you to call to mind the final words that will be said to you at your burial:? Listen to this prayer that I say: "In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother N., and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless them and keep them, the Lord make his face to shine upon them and be gracious to them, the Lord lift up his countenance upon them and give them peace. Amen."
As I mark your forehead with sacramental dust, I am reminding you that you are mortal. I am also reminding you that life is fleeting. In that same Psalm 103 we also hear, "As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more."
I wonder if the person who wrote Psalm 103 is perhaps trying to get us to get going with our life of faith. You know, we all get off track. We all get turned around. We all lose our way. We all have those dirty little sins that make us cringe when we think of them. Lent acknowledges that fact, and reminds us that life is short, and so the church in effect gives us a holy kick in the backside to get back on track, in getting ourselves right with God and our neighbors.
In theological terms, we are given the opportunity for self-examination, repentance, confession and redemption. In everyday terms, during Lent we look inside ourselves, see our sin, name it, preferably out loud to another human being, say we are sorry to God and whoever else we have hurt, and then trust that God can redeem all of it. Wash it away forever. Gone and forgotten.
Psalm 103 tells us plainly, "He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us."
So if you are dealing with piddly little daily sins or a life-long demon, Lent is a time for you. It gives you an intentional time of prayer and fasting for those times when we have failed to conquer our sins and demons on our own. This is a time to ask Jesus to lift them, forgive them and give you peace.
If you do, when you do, I promise you will find your load, your life to be lighter. You will live more lightly with the perspective of the forgiven, as opposed to the staggering around under the weight of feeling condemned.
During Lent we are also given the opportunity each year to examine our life and to think about our place here as we pass through on our way to eternity. Specifically I mean, does your life reflect your love for God with all your heart and soul and mind—body, mind and soul? Is he your true center? Does your world revolve around Him or does it revolve around yourself or around another person or goal — even a good one?
Lent is therefore also a time to ask Jesus to give you a sense of who He is and who you truly are, and to ask Him to show you his purpose for you in this world.
I recently read a small devotion by Oswald Chambers. He writes, "Joy means the perfect fulfilment of that for which I was ... The joy Our Lord had, lay in doing what the Father sent Him to do, and He says, 'As My Father hath sent Me, even so am I sending you.' Have I received a ministry from the Lord? If so, I have to be loyal to it, to count my life precious only for the fulfilling of that ministry. Think of the satisfaction it will be to hear Jesus say, 'Well done, good and faithful servant”; to know that you have done what He sent you to do. We have all to find our niche in life, and spiritually we find it when we receive our ministry from the Lord."
Our lives are so short, like those time lapse photos you see of a city over time or of a flower growing from seed to full flower. God created you. You hold a unique place in His world. The purpose of your whole life is to know Him and Love him and your neighbors, in your unique way.
So this Lent, I invite you to reflect upon your mortality, to reflect upon your sin, to reflect upon your need for redemption, and to reflect upon the role of your faith in your life, and your role in God’s creation. And I pray that you have a most holy Lent as we walk in the Way of Love toward the cross of our Lord together.
The Rev. Robin Hinkle is the rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Jasper.