Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. And in many traditions, Ash Wednesday is marked with a worship service where people come forward to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads and they hear the words “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
I didn’t grow up with this practice, yet somewhere along the way I picked it up and integrated into the life of our congregation where I pastored. In fact, the Ash Wednesday service became one of the most significant services in my spiritual life.
Now to many, this may seem rather odd. I mean, I’m a pretty jovial individual and yet the season of Lent is about remembering our sins, our mess-ups, and our strained relationship with God. It is a reminder of the sacrifice Jesus made when he entered into the world to only end up beaten, bruised and crucified to a Roman Cross. That is not overly joyful. And on top of that, Ash Wednesday itself is ultimately a reminder of our mortality, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” Really, who wants to remember they are mortal? It was rather startling when I marked the sign of the cross in ashes on my firstborn son when he was only three months old.
While remembering our mortality might seem morbid, what if remembering our mortality is ultimately about embracing life itself? What if Ash Wednesday isn’t what it seems?While remembering our mortality might seem morbid, what if remembering our mortality is ultimately about embracing life itself? What if Ash Wednesday isn’t what it seems? Click To Tweet
Throughout the biblical story, the greatest human temptation is to shake off our mortality and become like God. This was the temptation in the Garden of Eden, (eat of the fruit and you will become like God) and lays the groundwork of our greatest sin; to reject the goodness of God’s creation. Humans, in all our humanity, are created good. Before original sin, there is original blessing. And that the majority of all our Sin is rooted in the fear of our mortality and that in the end, God will abandon us in death. This is why as soon as we were out of the primordial garden we built towers and temples, empires and militaries so that we can become all-powerful and all-mighty like God and shake off this mortal coil.
And so while we as humans have sought to become like God and reject the mortality of the flesh and the goodness of this creation, Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8)
Jesus, the one who was equal to God, empties himself of that power and embraces the fullness of his humanity, including its limitations and death. Where we desire to go up and become powerful like God, Jesus goes down and embraces being human.
Ash Wednesday, and the whole journey of Lent to the Cross, and Easter Sunday afterwards, is a reminder that Jesus embraces what it means to fully human, and reminds us, that being human, is good. By embracing his humanity, Jesus accepts all that comes with it, and for us, I believe this is a gift.
When we embrace our humanity, not only do we become more like Jesus, but we begin to resist the temptation to become all-powerful like God. In fact, we give room for God to be God.
And so, maybe in some way, I have come to see Lent, and Ash Wednesday, as a celebration of life; an invitation to embrace the fullness of life and all that it brings, limitations and all.