Nobody likes death, but it is a part of the human story. We are all going to die but we deny the reality as long we able, it seems to me. My wife died a few weeks ago and when I say it that way, many are visibly uncomfortable. Most, I suppose, prefer the euphemism – ‘passed away.’ I have no problem saying she died because I know the great hope that ends the season that the Christian Church begins today.
Ash Wednesday is the opening of Lent, a 40 day time of reflection on life and death that ends with our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the linchpin of our faith and our reason for hope. Millions of Christians around the world will wear ashes on their forehead today, a reminder of sorrow for the death that sin produces – both spiritual and physical. When the ashes are smeared there, the minister will speak words from Genesis, the ancient words of sin’s curse: “You were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19, NLT)
Some will enter a time of Lenten fasting. Growing up in a Pentecostal church that did not observe any of the liturgical calendar, I saw my Catholic friends come to school wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday and I heard them talk of giving something up for Lent and I was mystified. Is there any value in such observance? The answer depends on how and why you do it! It can be a meaningless gesture of tradition for many. Others will turn it into a vain attempt to gain God’s favor.
But, it can also be a way to remind ourselves of the transitory nature of life and the reason for that fact. Those ashes can serve as a visible, powerful reminder of that I am dust, that sin has turned my life into deathly ash. Sin entered the world. I am a sinner. I am dead, a person whose glorious reason for existence is lost except for … Christ Jesus, the Risen Lord!
I believe we would live better Christian lives if we remembered our dusty frailty, if we faced death’s reality more realistically. We would turn to the Cross, embrace the grace found there, and remain focused on the promise of heaven that the Resurrection assures. He changes the ashes to glory, brings Light into the darkness, gives Life to those dead in sin and trespass. “So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22, NLT) I do not trip lightly through such wonderful words these days. Nor should you.
I encourage you to adopt some practice of ‘fasting’ this Lenten season. You can’t impress God so don’t try! Fasting is not about Him, it is about us. When we set aside some food or refuse to engage in some pleasant activity, it is a way to remind ourselves that there is more to life than food, sleep, fun, and sex.
Fasting that honors the Lord is focused on turning our attention from Self to the Spirit, from our love of a thing that is dying to love for that which never dies. Paul hints at the value of the discipline of fasting when he says “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NIV) What a phrase! The whole of the passage is about staying focused on the promise of eternal life. “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-28, NLT)
Make the season of Lent a run for the Resurrection. Face the fact of death. Thank God that because of the Cross of Jesus our spirits, once dead in sin, are made alive. And, begin to live as an eternal being even now as you inhabit a dying body. For some day “the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. So encourage each other with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, NLT)
Ashes to glory – transformed in that moment into glorious bodies that will never die!