We had a wonderful Ash Wednesday worship this year. One of the notable things during our Ash Wednesday service was that our youth attended, and our children from our Wednesday evening children’s program also came up to receive the ashes. The way we received ashes this year, was to come forward and kneel on the kneelers up front and I came and made the shape of the cross on each person’s forehead while saying, “Remember, O mortal, from dust you came, to dust you shall return, repent, and believe the gospel.” This is a call for each of us to remember our mortality and then to raise the question as to how we ought to live our lives and to repent and follow the Lord.
Contemplating my own mortality is enough of an exercise and challenge, but this Ash Wednesday I was struck by something I didn’t expect when it came to impose the ashes on my wife and my children.
As I put the ashes on my wife’s forehead, I had to face the fact that not only will I someday die, but she will as well. I was reminded of something I heard or read from Tim Keller. He commented on how idols can be good things that take God’s place, and that we can make idols out of our spouses. He shared that neither he nor his wife could make an idol out of each other, because they both knew that one day one of them would be standing at the grave of the other and if that person was their god, then their world would be over.
As if that wasn’t difficult enough to contemplate, I also imposed ashes on my children. My youngest, who is three and who has had febrile seizures which are terrifying for us as his parents, was kneeling with his hands folded up to his head. He was very serious – which was a bit out of the ordinary. So I kneeled, and made the shape of the cross in ash, and told my little boy, from dust he came, and to dust he shall return.
The Psalmists seemed to have a good grasp of the transience of our lives.
“For he knows how we were made;
He remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
They flourish like a flower of the field;
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place knows it no more.”
Ash Wednesday is a sobering reminder that life is fleeting and fragile. The Christian faith posits that there is more than this life. There is something beyond. In fact, we believe in a Lord who has overcome death and offers eternal life. While we may claim to believe these things, it is in times of death that our faith is tested and we are forced to rethink our priorities and reexamine what our perspective is showing us. Ash Wednesday is a reminder that everything and everyone in our lives are temporary. This is a hard reminder, but it is true. We know it to be true from experience, but we spend a great deal of our lives building up walls of denial. Life is fleeting and fragile.
“Remember O, mortal, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.”
It’s that last part that ought to catch our attention. Repent and believe the gospel. Ash Wednesday would be a sort of leap into the despair of nihilism without the call towards something or someone else. If our lives and the lives of those around us are temporary, then where do we find something that will indeed last? We should continue with the Psalm I cited above:
“But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.”
The Lord is everlasting. It is in Jesus we find that which will not fade away. It is in Christ that we find the everlasting. My hope for us as we journey through this Lenten season is that we will realize the transience of our lives on this earth, and will turn to the one who is everlasting.