The older I get; the faster time seems to move. Does it work that way for you? I mean really…today is Ash Wednesday, it’s already the beginning of Lent. Didn’t we just celebrate Christmas a couple of weeks ago? It sure feels that way.
It makes sense when you think about it. When I was 10 years old, a year? It was a full 10% of my lifetime. But now that I’m 57? A year represents only 1.75% of my life. Every year, time seems to move faster and faster because as I age, a year, a week or a day becomes a smaller percentage of my total life. If I think about this too much, it can start to get kind of depressing!
My rational side understands that the movement of time is a constant. But man, it sure seems to move quicker and quicker.
Except, that is, for Lent. Lent, at least for me, is a season when the pace of time seems to slow.
Every year, it feels like we rush towards Ash Wednesday…and then every year, when it arrives, it feels like time slows down. Lent is a time set apart. There is a different pace. Time moves much slower…much more deliberately…during this season…right up until Easter. I have learned to appreciate…even to look forward to…this slower pace. Then, of course, after we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, it’s like the clock hits the accelerator again.
So, I love the season of Lent. For these 40 days, I am forced to slow down my pace just a bit…to think…to pray…to reflect on what God is up to in the world.
The origins of the season are Biblical. 40 days has always a significant amount of time for God’s people.
- It rained for 40 days and 40 nights when Noah and his family were hunkered down in the ark.
- Moses stayed on the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days.
- Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before he began his ministry.
When in the scriptures, it uses 40 days, those days are almost always a prelude to something…a time of preparation before someone started something new:
- For Noah it was 40 days in the ark before he stepped into what was to be a new world…a new creation.
- For Moses it was 40 days before the Israelites would launch their journey to the promised land. And;
- For Jesus, it was 40 days of preparation before he began his work of teaching, healing and leading.
So here we are…it’s Ash Wednesday…this is the beginning of our 40 days, our time in the wilderness. It makes me wonder a bit: what is God preparing us for, during these 40 days?
Traditionally, this has a time we have focused on being reflective… penitent…and prayerful. And there is nothing wrong with that. But as I read our Gospel text for today/tonight, I think Jesus is thinking about something a little different. Jesus is thinking about revival. Here is what he says:
Jesus says: “When you fast, don’t look dismal, like the hypocrites. They disfigure their faces so as to show others that they’re fasting.” And then he goes on: “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that your fasting won’t be seen by others, but only your Father in heaven.”
Jesus’ words here, spoken in the context of Ash Wednesday, suggest that this season isn’t one meant to be filled with artificial somberness, or pained lament. No. These acts…these 40 days…this season…is meant to stir up faith…it meant to kindle something new within. This season…it is a season of revival.
Like Noah…like Moses…like Jesus…this season is a time to begin a new journey. A journey to the cross.
And today, you began your journey, your journey to the cross, by doing something counter-intuitive; something even counter-cultural.
Today you came forward and you received the mark of the cross, in ash…and you heard the words…”remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” Today, you began your Lenten journey to the cross, by acknowledging your own mortality.
“Remember you are dust…and to dust you shall return.” These are powerful words. They are tender words. They are a reminder that you were created by God, out of nothing…dirt…dust…a lump of clay…hardly anything at all. And at the end of your life that is what you will return to. These words are a reminder of your mortality and a reminder of your complete dependence on God, who created and loves you.
Last week, I did the funeral for Evie Hershberger. Many of you, knew Evie. Evie was a dedicated member of this congregation. She was a woman of strong faith and she was a friend. Physically, Evie was small…I always thought a strong wind might blow her away. But Evie was strong…and independent…bold even. And as she aged her body became fragile…but she always remained emotionally and spiritually strong. I admired her a lot.
I remember a while ago I visited Evie in the hospital. She had taken a fall and fractured some vertebrae. And I was sitting by her hospital bed talking with her.
We talked about her getting older. She was always honest about what she thought. She knew that she would recover from that particular injury, but she was lamenting her advancing age…and her decreasing mobility. It was frustrating for her!
She talked about wanting to make sure she didn’t become a burden to those who loved her. She said to me: “I know where I’m going…that’s not an issue. I just want to make sure that everything here is taken care of.”
Evie knew her own mortality. She knew that her life was temporary. But she also knew and trusted that there was something that followed…something eternal.
And I have a distinct memory of Evie coming forward on Ash Wednesday in past years. And I remember putting the cross on her forehead and saying, “Evie, remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And I remember that she smiled at me as she turned to go back to her seat.
Evie knew. And she was confident. She knew she was dust, and to dust she would return. But she also knew that this wasn’t where her story would end.
Today/tonight, we remember our mortality. We acknowledge that we are finite creatures. Our days are numbered. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much you have or how powerful you are.
Beyonce…she is dust. Bill Gates…he is dust. Elon Musk…he is dust. President Biden…he is dust. Kevin McCarthy…he is dust. Evie Hershberger…she is dust. I am dust. You…you are dust. And to dust, we shall all return.
Remembering that we are dust helps us to keep perspective. I mean really, how often do we take tomorrow for granted? We assume that we naturally have lots of days ahead of us. We make plans for months or even years in advance. And we should…because we look forward with hope. But these ashes on our forehead remind us that we have no such guarantee. We receive life one day at a time and we never know when our final day may come.
So we are here today and with this sign…this reminder on our foreheads, we begin our 40 day journey…our journey to the cross. This sign of the cross is a paradox. It speaks both of death and also of life. In the ashes, we remember that we are dust. But in the cross, we look to the resurrection. We look to the end of our journey…to the hope, the love and the grace of Easter morning, when Jesus stepped from his grave into the light of the new day.
This is the promise that Evie experienced fulfilled. She knew she was dust, but she knew that at the end of her journey would be light.
The same is true for each of you. It is a promise God made through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
We begin our journey to the cross. We begin with a reminder that our lives are finite. Don’t take your time for granted. Every day is a gift, given to you by God. Live, love and serve in the name of Jesus. But have faith that your journey will end with resurrection, with light, and with the promise of God…fulfilled.
Thanks be to God!