Today marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent. The readings for this day can be found here. These Biblical texts and today’s liturgy are rich, and perhaps more than any other time in the year (even Christmas and Easter) people write the sermon they need for this day. On such a day, a blog post may be redundant. Even so...
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This action of smudging ashes on foreheads is a counter-cultural act. Most of us don't like to talk about death or dying. We think we will live forever and therefore that we have all the time in the world. We do not.
Some of you may remember the journalist, Leroy Sievers, who wrote a blog called "My Cancer." He was fifty-three years old when he died (writes the fifty-three year old blogger who hopes, God willing, to turn fifty-four in a couple of weeks). Sievers made it real, blogging about his illness and inspiring others to live each day more fully. In one of his posts, Sievers recalls that he was watching an episode of House when a character on that television show, an old man with cancer, says to his doctor, “I want to know that something is different because I was here.”
I think that prayer resonates with people of all ages, across gender and racial and political lines. I don't know what you need to give up or let go of or add in your life for that to happen. I'm still working on figuring that out for myself. Some of us need to slow down; while others of us need to get to work. Some of us need to get serious; while others of us need to lighten up. Some of us need to begin to recognize the gifts we have and claim them; others of us need a dose of humility and need to step back. Some of us need to speak up; others of us need to learn how to listen. The messages we take from this day will be particular to the lives we are living and even the "chapter" that we're on. As an almost fifty-four year old, I am not the same person I was at twenty-four. (Thanks be to God!)
But I can say this to you: we are all terminal. You don’t need a cancer diagnosis to be terminal. All of us have a limited amount of time on this earth to do the work that God has given us to do. All of us are dust and to dust we shall return. There is no negotiating on that one! So the only question left is this: what will you do with your one, wild and precious life? What is it that will be different about the world—better about the world—that others will notice when you are gone?
And then here is the hardest question of all: how do you claim that, and then live backwards from it? We are all marked for death, but we have been claimed for life.This Lenten journey upon which we embark today isn’t a time for self-flagellation or spiritual narcissism. It ends at the empty tomb, with the promise of resurrection and new and abundant life. Even at the grave we make our song. Listen. Be very still: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
I wonder if maybe one of the reasons that we refrain from using that word in Lent is so that as we enter into the quiet and the wilderness we can begin to hear God already singing it in and through our lives. If that is the case then we listen now, so that we can join the song on Easter day.
Today is truly a gift. We are all terminal. But that fact need not paralyze or frighten us. The ashes are rubbed into our foreheads in that very same spot where the priest once made the sign of the cross with holy oil when we were baptized and “Christened,” which is to say sealed and marked and named and claimed. And loved. We have been baptized into Christ’s death, and so we have also already been raised with him to new life.
I don’t think that means that we sit around waiting for heaven. I think it is meant to liberate us so that we make each day count. So that we can live lives that matter. So that when our time comes, and the saints militant gather to remember us when we have joined the saints triumphant, our friends and family will have no problem in saying about us that something was different because we were here.