Branded for Death: Reflections on Ash Wednesday and Lent

Branded for Death: Reflections on Ash Wednesday and Lent

I did not observe Ash Wednesday and Lent until later in life. There was only one Catholic Church in my hometown, and I actually do not recall knowing a Roman Catholic my age. Giving up something for Lent was more like the run-up to a punch line, or a silly comment made regarding a new diet. I was in my 30s before I saw a human with ashes smudged on their forehead.

My introduction to Lent started with the task of preaching. I’ve always preached series of sermons, mostly through a book of the Bible. And leading up to Easter, I normally selected one of the gospels to take us toward the resurrection. It began to be a pattern. The more I came to grasp what Lent meant, the more I understood the rhythm of the Christian calendar and the need for us to live into the Christian story.

My Methodist friends began to inform me about the Lenten season, along with friends from multiple Christian traditions, both Catholic and Protestant. I sensed a richness in their attention to the journey into death, and the hope of resurrection. And then it dawned on me that the journey to death is ancient Biblical holiness language – participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus, Romans 6-8 stuff.

Ash Wednesday Reminds Us Of Our Humanity

The first time I smeared ashes on the foreheads of Nazarenes was somewhat discomforting. I was saying to the people I pastored, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I said it to a woman dying with cancer. I preached her funeral within months. I said it to teenagers who had life by the tail and were shocked to be branded for death. I said it to men, powerful in business and leadership, whose bodies would one day retire from their important doings. But most difficult of all, I remember the night I smeared ashes on the forehead of Eleanor Grace Tallman, my first grandchild, barely born. I teared up.

Why do we do this? Are we morbid? Into martyrdom? Fixated on death?

I think we do it because it reminds us of our humanity, which sounds an awfully lot like the word, humus. We came from dust and to dust we return. We will de-compose. This is the journey we are on.

And God, in Christ, entered history as human/humus, went on the same journey, and sanctified it. Which means that the material body is not evil, but capable of being filled with God and made holy. And it also means that the journey we engage together is grounded in reality – “Dust we are and to dust we will return.” We don’t climb on high horses and declare ourselves to be the saviors of the world, or the inerrant experts in all things complicated, or the fountain of all wisdom. We are created beings with an expiration date.

And our only hope of being alive forever is rooted in the destination of our Lenten journey – the resurrection of Jesus. To get there, we must die, now and later.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his…. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we will live with him…. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:5-11)

This is a journey I wish to be on.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Dan. I shared your post on our church’s FB page. Tonight we’ll share in that ancient ritual with lament and hope.

  2. Bill Nichols says

    Just returned from Ash Wednesday services at my place of worship. Music by piano, cello and guitar. Sacred music and The Word . A time of worship and reflection. I am dust but I’m His dust!

  3. James "Jamos" Amos says

    Eye brows raised when I began practicing the observance of the Christian calendar with my students years ago. The fear I was becoming “too Catholic” was more than once expressed as we approached Lent. I asked for grace, an open mind and extended the invitation to join us for our observances. The intentionality with which we entered into the journey to the cross made a significant impact on our individual and corporeal spiritual lives. Lent became one of the most highly anticipated rythyms of our year by students and adults. Eventually we added an adapted version of The Stations of the Cross in the midst of a more substantive observance of Holy Week. Yay God!!

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