“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”
The above sobering words are central to the Lenten liturgy that I, and many other Christians throughout world, heard yesterday as we came forward, at our respective services, for the imposition of ashes, a rite where believers receive the mark of the Cross on their foreheads. This mark was made using the ashes of burnt palm branches, which were used the previous year in celebration of Palm Sunday, a celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. Knowing this added poignancy, for Palm Sunday is closely followed by Good Friday, the event of Jesus’ crucifixion, an event that transpired at the hands of those who just a few days previous celebrated him as the Messiah. This is poignant because in some manner my involvement in Lent, and particularly Ash Wednesday, implicates me in Jesus’ death, just as if I was among those who turned on him during his last week in Jerusalem. In short, the sign of the cross on my forehead is like blood on the hands of a murderer. This sign is a mark of the very reason why I deserve to return to dust.
The thing is, though all I have written above is true and somber, Lent is not ultimately about guilt and death. Instead, it is a season of preparation to enable one to enter more fully into the life of God. Sure this season is justly somber, as this time of preparation is animated by repentance and fasting, which are two practices that do not evoke positivity and joy. I think, however, that the negative connotations associated with these practices are largely due to a misunderstanding. Often when people think of repentance and fasting, they think of giving up something desirable to please or, worse yet, appease God, but the Gospel has another word to say about this matter. In short, it tells us there is nothing we must, or more importantly, can do to please God, as he fully accepts us on the basis of what he has already done through Jesus Christ. So then, why this season of repentance and fasting? Simply put, God has much to freely give us, and more than that, he wants to give us more of himself, but we cannot receive what he offers when our hearts are full, no matter how free it might be. In this manner, repentance is merely letting go of something to be able to receive something better, deeper, and more satisfying.
According to Christian conviction, in this age between the ages, believers still struggle with the reality of sin, a struggle that takes place within our hearts. In its essence this struggle has to do with deep longings for connection, worth, meaning, and ultimately joy. We struggle because the world readily offers many resources to meet these longings, and to some degree, what the world offers provides satisfaction, but it is not a satisfaction that is equal in measure to that for which our souls were made: communion with God. And so, the season of Lent is a grace that reminds us that though we are mortal we were made for immortality, the very immortality that is expressed in the event towards which Lent is always moving: Easter. In Easter, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and with him, our resurrection as well. In summation, Lent is a preparation for that event through which the dust of our lives will be gathered into everlasting glory, and in which are insatiable longings will find a satisfaction that will never end.