It’s Ash Wednesday.
If you already knew that, chances are you grew up in a Catholic home or are affiliated in some way with a Protestant church that follows the liturgical calendar.
I’m not Catholic and I don’t attend such a church but I did attend an Ash Wednesday mass at a local Catholic church today. For many, this service is a normal spiritual practice to usher in the season of Lent; for me, it was new and intriguing and I sat quietly in my pew soaking it all in (especially the stained glass).
I have never attended a formal mass and so it felt a bit like an initiation into a ritual that is foreign to me. Except that it’s not. Not really. In the last few years I have been drawn to the contemplative traditions and more traditional spiritual practices and so I have already been practicing Lent. And I have attended services of one kind or another almost every Sunday of my life. But the idea of marking the start of this season of reflection and reorientation with ashes seemed fresh and profound and I wanted to explore it further. I felt compelled not to let this Wednesday day pass without due acknowledgement. So, I showed up and opened up to this experience.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
These are the words pronounced over each congregant as she receives ashes which are gently placed on her forehead in the sign of a cross by an elder in the church. This moment is embedded in a liturgy of song, prayer, and scripture which reflects on the importance of remembering our humanity and the fact that our lives are but a vapour (James 4:14).
Some might say that reflecting on one’s mortality is a depressing way to spend a lunch hour! Not to mention the confusion about why someone would willingly enter into a melancholy season of deprivation typically marked with giving up chocolate, caffeine, or – God forbid – social media!
But Lent is actually a season of joy! It is a time that marks the goodness of God to us in that we are offered a loving reminder to draw close again. To be set free again. To become dis-entangled with the weeds that have overgrown and smothered our lives. To come face to face with our idols and to cast them off. To make space again for the Holy Spirit to move and restore our dry bones.
Lent is a 40-day journey throughout which we can reaffirm and re-experience our needs being met fully in God. We don’t have to depend our fragile and fragmented selves to make us worthy of that divine gift. We don’t have to image manage or perform to gain our belovedness. We can lay down our anxiety and rest in the shelter of His wings where we are secure. We can relinquish our need for power and trust in the sovereignty of our Saviour to dissolve our illusion of control.
In this season of fasting and prayer, we are reminded that we need deliverance from a life of worldly passions and when we release our grasp on these things we will not be left wanting. We are not deprived. We are filled to overflowing with God. We have all that we need and this abundance leads to generosity.
When we reflect on our dusty origins we are reminded that Creator God forms us and His breath – the Holy Spirit – re-vitalizes us and brings us back into the land of the living.
“The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).
Thus remembering that each life is but a breath (Job 7:7) is a healthy practice. Acknowledging that we came from dust and will return to dust grounds us.
And as we turn our eyes back to Jesus, the things of earth grow strangely – but appropriately – dim. And we remember who we are and what really matters.
Are you practicing Lent this year? If so, what makes it meaningful for you? How will you remember that you are dust and allow God to breathe life into you again?