Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.
A day that brings up memories of incense, candles, and quiet, echo-y sanctuaries.
After the celebrations of Fat Tuesday (or Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, whichever you celebrate) we move into Lent.
(though let me make a quick plug here for Shrove Tuesday because what the world needs is a day to just eat pancakes, am I right?)
This season in the church is one that we don’t always know what to do with.
It’s filled with reflection and self-examination.
All things that we don’t do very well these days.
See often we think of Lent as this run-up to Easter.
Like a countdown to the good stuff.
Or we think of Lent as this time to show everyone what a good Christian we are by giving something up and then telling everyone about it.
But what if we had gotten it wrong?
What if Lent wasn’t about giving stuff up or trying to be like Jesus in the wilderness for these 40 days?
What if Lent was about getting our focus and energy back on God?
We have strayed.
We have lost our focus.
Lent is time set apart for us to be honest about the things that take us away from God.
We can’t really rise on Easter Sunday unless we understand the things that are killing us.
And then we need to let them die.
Lent is hard.
But man do we need it.
And it all starts with Ash Wednesday.
This day where we go to church and someone looks at us and says:
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return”
It’s not fun.
I know, there are a lot of cool, trendy taglines to try to get you to come to church on this day.
“Get your ash in church.”
I was at a conference not too long ago and someone said that they found the act of receiving ashes to be a comfort, and that it made them feel warm and feel good.
If that’s how you feel about receiving ashes and being told you’re going to be dust, then good on you,
but I find it difficult and uncomfortable and unsettling.
It’s a day I’d rather skip, if I’m being honest.
Who really wants to be reminded of their impending death?
Who wants to be reminded of the fragility of their life?
When I was three years old, my family went to Ash Wednesday mass and as we received the ashes on our foreheads, as that priest leaned forward and told me to remember I was dust and to dust I shall return,
I shouted out (in the middle of the very quiet church):
BUT I DON’T WANNA BE DUST!!!!
Truth, out loud.
That little girl is still in there.
I STILL feel that way. Don’t you?
I don’t like this moment.
It’s so humbling to hear that I am mortal.
I don’t want the reminder of the reality of my own coming death.
But I need it.
WE need it.
It connects us to our humanity.
But it also connects us to our salvation.
It brings our life and death together for one moment – and it is in that moment that we are humiliated and resurrected at the same time.
As Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber preached, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet.”
The cross on my head with the water of my baptism meets the cross with the dirt of my funeral
and for just a second I can truly understand what it is to have these promises of God written on my very person.
I am God’s.
Yesterday, today, tomorrow.
Not even the inevitability of my own death can erase the promise of this God who loves me and has claimed me as his own.
This reminder matters.
Because new life cannot exist without it.
Resurrection follows death.
So even though that little three-year-old Natalia still has her moment of not wanting to be dust,
I will show up,
I will bow my head,
and I will be reminded that I am dust.
Maybe now more than ever.
So find a service.
(it doesn’t have to be mine, but you are always welcome)
Come to church.
Hear the words.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.