Well, today is Ash Wednesday. It’s also my birthday today, which is awkward since Ash Wednesday is one of the designated days of fasting in our church calendar. No birthday cake for me this year. Not today at any rate.
Now, because Ash Wednesday is based on the date of Easter, and Easter moves around from year to year, Ash Wednesday does too. It can be as early as February 4, and as late as March 10. This is the first time in my lifetime that it’s fallen on my birthday, so that’s new and weird.
In a way, they do go together better than you might think. Every year around my birthday I start to take stock of my life. I’m turning 45 today. What was my life like when I turned 35? Or 25? What would 15 year old me who had a pretty dim view of religion think about 45 year old me? But it’s not just looking backwards. If I’m fortunate enough to live until I’m 90, that means that this is the halfway point of my life. Am I headed where I want to be headed? What doors are closing, and what doors are opening? What will my life be like in another 5 birthdays?
Maybe I’m the only one who gets reflective like this on his birthday, but it seems like it’s a good idea to ponder my own life’s progress from time to time, and my birthday is a pretty good time to do it. It comes around every year, after all. Call it my annual checkin.
Ash Wednesday is pretty similar. We have this day, this liturgy, set aside to hear the Bible tell us about fasting and repentance. We are marked on our foreheads with ashes, which are the burned up palm fronds from previous years’ Palm Sunday liturgies. We are told to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
I’ll be blunt. Today is about death. It is about life and death. Today is about life and death, because Lent is about life and death, and Lent is about life and death because this whole season is pointing us towards our annual remembrance of the confrontation between life and death. That’s what happened on the cross. Jesus Christ willingly died an awful death, and then he rose again because death is not as powerful as we think it is. He did it so that we can share it with him, life eternal.
So on Easter Sunday we celebrate the victory of life over death, for Jesus and for us. But today we are brave enough to confront the power of death over life, where it still has power. We have great trouble, you and I, admitting out loud this thing that we all know is true. Every one of us here has been born and is alive. And every one of us will at some point die; that is, unless Jesus comes again very soon. Each of us has known people who have died. The columbarium in our church is filled with the ashes of those who have died — maybe after the liturgy today you will go in there and spend some time with them. Say a little prayer for them. We’ve all been born, and we’ll all die, and we don’t want to think about it. We don’t even call it death when it happens. We say “passed away” instead. It feels less final, and we want to be protected from death’s finality.
Because we’re scared of it. We’re scared of death. We’re scared of dying. Some of us are scared of the dead. We’re scared of the irreversibility of death. There are many, many things that you can fix in this life if you make a mistake, but death doesn’t seem to be one of them.
So isn’t it natural that Jesus would have to die? God wanted to set us free from our biggest fear, and the only way was to confront it head on, to let death claim him, and then to return in triumph. Easter is all about his life and death, and because he came to share it with us, Easter is about our life and death too.
But Easter is on its way. It is not here yet. Today’s task is to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Today’s task is to remember that this mortal life doesn’t last forever, and if we are not happy with the course we’re on, today is the day to start turning. Do not wait. Do not wait.
Today is a day of great bravery for the church. You are all very brave, because today you are confronting fear head on. You are daring to admit something that so many of us strive to deny: that life itself is a matter of life and death. We gain nothing by denying the truth. By embracing it, and turning to Jesus, the doors of everlasting life swing open to us.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. But that isn’t the end of the story.