“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.“
That’s the declaration that traditionally accompanies the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The ashes are made by burning the palm branches from last year‘s Palm Sunday procession. Once burned, the ash is ground into a fine powder to be smudged on our foreheads in the shape of a cross and accompanied by words that recall the fact of our mortality. So, for many western Christians, the 40 days of Lent begin.
But last spring there was no procession of palms at the Chapel. We had all been driven apart as we followed the best plans we could make in an effort to do what we could to “flatten the curve“ of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps we thought that it would just be for a little while.
Soon it will be a whole year.
In this time that has passed, it’s estimated that world-wide, more than two million have died, with about 25% of those deaths occurring in the United States. Some days last spring and this winter, the daily death toll exceeded the number who died on 9/11, this country’s worst fatal disaster in recent memory.
What are we to make of Lent’s call to remember our mortality in a time of a global pandemic?
At the start of the Ash Wednesday service at the Chapel, the pastor leading worship says, “I invite you…to observe a holy Lent, committing yourselves to self-examination and penitence.“
This might just sound like a churchy way of saying, “reflect on what’s wrong with you and your life and make some resolutions that will lead to positive change.”
But Lent isn’t about making us feel bad about our mistakes. It’s not about finding new habits or about rebooting our New Year’s resolutions. It’s about something far more profound and more grace filled.
Lent is about reawakening ourselves to the limits of our lives and doing so under the white-hot gaze of a holy God.
It turns out all those people who tried to encourage us when we were young by telling us that we could do anything or be anyone, weren’t giving us the whole picture. There are limits, limits of time, limits of opportunity and limits of resources. When we need to make choices because we can’t do everything, those choices require us to say “no“ to dreams and other good things and all sorts of good things that will never be realized. We are finite beings, alive in time and space, we can’t be everywhere and do everything.
And, as it turns out, even when we can do what we’d like to get done, we frequently can’t do it as we’d like. We’re not the person that we’d like to be and we don’t find ultimate satisfaction in the goals that we set to achieve. According to the teachings of Christianity, as rooted in the Christian scriptures, this is because we are out of step with the one who made us. We long to own our lives and make something of ourselves. We long for equality with God. We want to be in charge of our lives. This is what the Bible means when it uses the word “sinful.” It isn’t primarily about moral or immoral behavior (though there’s frequently an ethical component to the way our sinfulness shows itself); it’s about being who we are or trying to be someone that we’re not. This is true of every one of us, even the overachievers.
The pandemic provides a helpful metaphor.
Why do we wear masks, wash our hands, and keep our distance? Because we are all potentially asymptomatic carriers of disease. While we might not exhibit any symptoms, we may be harboring the virus. Not all who are infected are symptomatic.
So it is with our sinfulness. Though it may be that some of us seem to have our lives together, that is we are not symptomatic of human brokenness, yet we carry in our bodies the marker of our condition. “Remember that you are dust.“
Lent, then, is the opportunity to stop and take note of this fundamental reality of our lives. At the risk of mixing metaphors, it is our opportunity to “take the red pill” and recognize for ourselves what is really going on.
When we do, are we to take up our mortality like a burdensome depression that robs life of all meaning? No. The Lenten invitation at the Ash Wednesday service continues: “I invite you to…prayer and fasting, almsgiving and works of love.” Lent is an invitation to stop and reflect on our lives:
- To be in the moment and pay attention to who we are and to those around us.
- To stop consuming in such a way that we imagine that if we just fill ourselves with enough of this world, of food and drink, of possessions and experiences, of work and success, we will somehow be able to keep our mortality at bay.
- To attend to the needs of those around us and consider their lives with us as of prime importance and as opportunities for us to share what we have been given.
- To take up that which is eternal, namely the language of love that seeks the joy of God‘s presence in the assurance of divine grace and forgiveness for us and for our neighbor.
It’s not so much about doing as it is about not doing and just being under the grace of God, wearing the sign of Christ’s cross.
So whether or not you attended Ash Wednesday services this year, Pastor Kate and I welcome you to this holy time of Lent.
May you remember, and be at peace. Peace with God, with your neighbor and with yourself.
Feb. 17, 2021
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as university pastor at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions with University Pastor Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay.