And so, Ash Wednesday is upon us again. Tonight, I was grateful to be able to participate in the imposition of ashes, reminding people that they are dust, and to dust they shall return. Death is inevitable. We have the power to create medical miracles, send men to the moon, and create weapons that can destroy the world. But with all of our ingenuity, we cannot overcome one thing – death. We’re powerless in this regard, and for self-respecting, entitled, and gotta-have-it-all Americans, acceptance of our powerlessness is not a very fun message. Ash Wednesday, in other words, begins a most counter-cultural season of the year.
And the trajectory of the season gets no better. In it, we ponder our powerlessness. While some attempt to find the secret key to agelessness, or the magic pill for happiness, we proclaim a reality that is haunting – we’re a messy bunch, prone to wander and fall, more needy than we’re willing to admit, and apt to pose (in creative and elaborate ways) as people more capable and impenetrable than we really are. Ashes, ashes, we all fall. And struggle. And wonder. God are you really there? Will we really be able to make it through the darkness?
Now, while that sounds like a downer, the reality of Ash Wednesday is that sign that is made on the forehead, though a gruesome reminder of Christ’s awful death, is (paradoxically) our greatest hope. Because he died, we live. It’s that simple. And while we hit dead ends and experience futility on this side of paradise, the promise is of a new and better world where there are no more tears and there is no more pain.
Now, to be honest, you won’t hear a lot of Christians talking this way. I’m grateful for my pastor and church, and the reality offered in hope of an authentic walk with Jesus. But, lots of pop Christian stars will counter the message of Ash Wednesday and Lent with an Americanized Gospel of entitled blessings and soon-to-come riches. It’s a message that sells. But it’s dishonest, to be frank. And it stands in stark contrast to the way of Jesus – the way of the Cross. That’s our pattern. That’s our invitation. That’s our far better Hope.
So, enter the Lenten journey with the reality of the Fall – ashes, ashes, we all fall. We’ll struggle and suffer, and sometimes we’ll question if God is really there. That’s honest faith. It wrestles and contends with a God big enough to take it. Enter it with the expectation that you’ll struggle, as well…and that God may heighten the tension, and even increase the darkness. That’s the God-honest truth of Christ-patterned life. Yes…it frustrates me, at times, too. But, take heart. Because an embrace of this reality means that you’re on to something…on to the great mystery, the hidden pearl of great price, the treasure…an Easter light that breaks through the cold, dark night with a better Hope than pop preachers or Gospel salesman can offer. It’s the hope of Jesus – that out of the ashes comes new life, new Hope.
It’s a wild ride, this Lenten journey. Let’s take it together.
Grace and peace.