A friend of mine, a former classmate in seminary, said something very interesting today on Facebook. She said that Ash Wednesday is possibly the most honest day in the Christian year. It made me stop and think. And you know, I would have to agree with her.
Ash Wednesday is probably my least favorite day of the Christian year, and it is probably that because it is so honest. Ash Wednesday tears away all the trappings of our life and makes us look our life square in the face. There is no “prettying up” Ash Wednesday, it is what it is. It is a reminder of death. Walking around with a big black cross on your forehead is not very attractive, but it is what we subject ourselves to. We leave the church with this sign of our mortality prominently displayed for the whole world to see.
But this is the honesty that we need as humans. We need to know that death is the great equalizer. One of my professors in seminary would say that no matter who you are, it is still the same: one death per person. From the richest person to the poorest beggar, we each get only one shot at life and we each have one death waiting for us at the end. And so often I think we all would just like to forget about the “death waiting at the end” part. But when we forget about death waiting for us, it is then that we get all caught up in the silly trivialities that can steal our lives away more quickly than a drunk driver at a busy intersection. We may not like to think about it, but it is our death that gives meaning to our life.
What are the things that we most treasure in life? Do we treasure snowflakes? Do we treasure grains of sand? Do we treasure every blade of grass? I would guess the answer would be “no.” We do not treasure these things because they are exceedingly common. What we do treasure are those things that are rare and special. We treasure works of art because they are rare. We treasure our children, our friends, and our family because they are rare. We treasure our life here on earth because it will not last forever. In being reminded of our death, we are once again reminded that life is fleeting and life is rare. In being reminded of our death, we can once again honestly face what we are doing with our life.
I also do not like putting ashes on peoples’ head. The reason I do not like this is because of the honesty that is involved. One of the first times I put ashes on peoples’ heads, I almost started crying. These were people I loved! I didn’t want to think of them as dying. I wanted them to stay alive and live in joy and wonder! I didn’t want to think of them as dead. But I had to continue placing ashes on these wonderful peoples’ heads and saying those horrible words. These wonderful people were not going to live forever. Death was going to take them too. And each black cross was a reminder.
And continuing in this path of though could become unbearable. The honesty of Ash Wednesday can tear us down and leave us a sobbing mass. And it would if it weren’t for another thing that was stated on Facebook. Another of my classmates said that Lent is one of the greatest gifts we could be given.
Being reminded of our death is usually not seen as something that we would claim as a gift, but if we think about it, it truly is. In recognizing my our death and the impending deaths of those around me, it challenges me to live our my life in truly radical ways. It challenges me to say the kind word that I could have left unspoken. It challenges me to do the kind act that could have been allowed to be unperformed. It challenges me. When I do something, I am challenged; if I were to die, is that the impression I want to leave? Do my behaviors reflect the image of Christ that I want to show to the world? If this person I am dealing with were to die, would I feel I did what I could to help this person know the love of Christ? If my life were to end right now, did I do all I could to spread Christ’s love to a hurting world? Knowing that our time on earth isn’t eternal helps us to see how rare each life is and to know that this rarity makes each life truly special.
Now, being human as we are, we cannot possibly keep this frame of mind at all times. Try as we might, we get angry, upset, impatient, and in some cases, downright mean. We might try, but we are humans and we will fall short of the mark. And if this were the state of things, then Lent and Ash Wednesday would be more sadistic than a gift. If this were all there was, we would be left with this rare gift of life and the guarantee that our one shot at life would end up as a miserable failure. But this is not all there is!
The ashes of Ash Wednesday point us to Christ’s death on the cross and the world placing his body in a tomb. The ashes remind us of the futility of chasing after the things of the world. The ashes speak honestly to us of our limitations. But the gift of Lent does not reach its conclusion until its very end. It is at the end that we see the honesty of a focus on death: In Christ, death is not the final word. In Christ, we have more to the story than just dying and having it all be over. In Christ we see that the death we see in the world is not the final end and that there is still something more incredible to come!
It is also in the truth we find at the end of Lent that we find freedom. We find the freedom to live life to the fullest because we know that sins we may make along the way are forgiven! We find the freedom to try the scary because we know that we have a Savior and Redeemer who walked through the darkness, even the darkness of death, and emerged victorious! At the end of Lent, we find the strength to look at ourselves honestly and to make those changes that we realize need to be changed. And we can make those changes knowing that our loving God has already forgiven us for our sins and shortfalls!
Yes, Ash Wednesday is probably the most honest day in the Christian calendar, but it is also a day that is full of the honesty of forgiveness and redemption! It hurts to have our shortcomings made plain, but if we do not see our faults, how can we ever fix them? If we do not see where we have gone astray, how can we ever return to the fold? And if all we had to look forward to at the end of this life was an angry, judgmental God, it wouldn’t be much of a gift. But we have the promise of a God who came to be one of us and experienced life as we experienced life. We have the promise of a judge who brings forgiveness even when the world calls for payment. We can look at our shortcomings because we know that we have a God who will welcome us with open arms, even when we fail!
Yes, Ash Wednesday is honest, but it is also a promise. It is the promise of a rich and fulfilling life here on earth, a life filled with true blessings, not just fleeting fancy. And a promise of a welcome home when our time here is done. Christ calls us and then leads us. And even though the path may be dark and scary, we know we can trust and follow because Christ has already passed this way and has emerged victorious!