Editor’s Note: You can listen to this Ash Wednesday Sermon on Restoration Anglican Church’s podcast.
The life of Jesus is marked by healing. We marvel at the messiah as he travels through Galilee and Judea performing miracle after miracle, bringing wholeness and restoration to those who feel broken.
Does the solemn reminder of mortality we receive at the outset of Lent invalidate all of that goodness and grace?
After all, on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are reminded of that dreadful inevitability that haunts our days. And this was true for those who knew the healing touch of Jesus, too. Every leper whom Jesus cleansed ultimately lay down in the dust. Every blind man whom Jesus gave his sight, saw the world, and then passed away from it. Every lame man whom Jesus told to walk, walked this earth, and then shuffled off this mortal coil. Even the little girl whom Jesus brought back to life, found that new life only a temporary reprieve.
This is a bummer. And that’s the point. Death is a bummer. And we deal with it in all the ways we deal with most bummers.
We ignore it. We see this great big emptiness that seems to occupy the center of reality, and we just try to fill it up with whatever we can. Instead of silence, we find noise. Instead of solitude, we find every crowded room. Instead of stillness, we seek out every form of busyness. And when that doesn’t work, we turn to every form of distraction and comfort that we can think of no matter how it may damage us.
Or we just give in to it. Our mortality for us feels like the ultimate shoulder shrug. If we are headed toward a dead end, why are we still walking? And so we are paralyzed by dread and uncertainty, failing friends and families and responsibilities in the face of the overwhelming meaninglessness that seems to stretch before us.
I would imagine that most of us have spent a good portion of our lives ignoring mortality or else giving in to the fear of mortality, but mostly, most of us spend our days raging against it.
It was the great Irish poet Dylan Thomas who wrote those famous words: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And we humans have taken them to heart. We’ve set up all our industry and genius about the great project of raging against the dying of the light.
A candle will burn for less than ten hours before its light is gone. But over a hundred years ago, we replaced them with incandescent lights that burn for a hundred times as long. And just last year, I bought a light bulb guaranteed to last 50,000 hours! We have raged against the dying of the light and every other limitation that we imagine holds us back.
We have glasses for our weakening eyes and pills to stimulate the use of organs that may have failed us along the way. We have pain killers and stress relievers. We have lifehacks and age-defying creams. And just this year, the Super Bowl reminded us that when old age threatens to rob us of our memories, Google will be there to simulate our younger, better brains.
And think of the control we’ve managed over our lives. We live in houses set to precisely the temperature we desire. We have homemade food delivered to our door. We track our calories, our calendars. We can take a pill to go to sleep and another to let us sleep with others without consequence. We have perfected the art to stripping the earth to serve our needs, and we are in full swing to plan our escape once we’ve used it up.
We have raged against the dying of the light, and there are moments, whole periods of our lives, when we’ve almost convinced ourselves we’ve won.
And what a catastrophe that project has proven to be. Again and again, just at the moment we’ve finally begun to convince ourselves that all this might last, that we are, in fact, holding it all together, in comes the tide we thought would never come to dissolve our little castles back into the lone and level sands.
Somewhere along the way we listened to a voice that said, “You will not surely die. Eat this and you will be like God.” We made the tragic mistake of taking on the role of God in our lives. And what awful gods we are. Our desires are selfish and petty. We are motivated by fear and insecurity. We wear the mantle of omnipotence—and daily we look in the mirror and see only a failure and a fraud.
It is a great bummer to remember that you are dust. To discover that you are not God. But can I invite you into the great relief of Lent?
This universe you’ve placed on your shoulders feels too big for you to hold? There’s a reason for that. The shame you feel that you can’t perform the perfection expected of immortals? There’s a reason for that.
In feeling the ashes placed on our heads, we do not decide to be dust one day; we agree with the great and beautiful and sad and awful truth of things. Remember that you are dust. Remember that you are not God.
The great history of the people of Israel is their stubborn insistence that they are enough, that they know best, that they can find the good life on their own. And God’s patient, persistent reply: that’s not going to get you where you want to be.
The great relief of repentance is that just at the moment we have realized we’ve led ourselves exactly where we don’t want to be, we are invited to turn.
The great relief of Lent is that, in giving up control over your life, the only thing you really lose is the illusion that you had control in the first place.
This Lent, I invite you to consider the objects and habits in your life that suggest to you that you are God. That you will live forever and achieve the perfection you seek. And in your lenten fast, how might you turn those into reminders that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Perhaps it is sacrificing convenience for the reminder that, when we press a button or swipe a card to make our lives easier, it likely comes at a hidden cost to others and our world. Perhaps it is taking on a discipline that will cause you to confess your weakness rather than flex your strength. Perhaps it is giving of yourself for the sake of others, discovering that your own needs which you’ve served so long are puny in the light of the suffering just outside our bubble.
If you are new to Lent, I might simply suggest that you give up a sliver of time you cherish for yourself. Maybe that is one meal a week or one tv show before you go to bed. And curate stillness and silence. Sit with the emptiness and anxiety of remembering that you are dust.
And as we hear that phrase again and again, remember that you are dust, some of us feel it as an accusation. That you are worthless. That you are dirty. But that sort of thinking is for wannabe gods, not for those acquainted with their dusty selves. To remember that you are not God may be a bummer, but all we’ve really lost is the lie we’ve told ourselves.
To remember that you are dust is to be reminded that you are earthbound. That being dust means that nothing is beneath us, and we are not permitted to look down on anyone. To remember that you are dust is to stop the charade that sin is what those people do, over there. It is to remember that we share ownership of this mortal estate.
We need that reminder. Jesus reminds us of what happens when we pray or fast or give without first being reminded of who we are and who we are not. The Pharisees would have sworn they were serving God by their religious acts, but really, they had discovered just one more way of raging against the dying of the light, by gaining the glory of others, and building up their own resume as Lord of all. Lent is a dangerous season in the hands of someone who has aspirations to be God.
We need to be reminded that we are dust. But God doesn’t. Psalm 103 says this most plainly: he remembers that you are dust. God does not look at us, disappointed that we have not reached our potential. He does not look at us, wondering why we can’t get our act together already.
When we rage at him: It’s so hard! He says, I know.
When we rage at him: I can’t do this anymore! He says, I know.
When we rage at him: It’s not supposed to be like this! He says, I know.
And then he says, If that load is hard, come. My burden is light.
And then he says, If you can’t do this anymore, why not let me have a try.
And then he says, If you will let me, I will show you what life is supposed to be like.
He knew it wouldn’t be easy for us to take his hand and follow. Jesus healed because his project wasn’t avoiding death, which is too often our only aim. Jesus healed as he walked toward his own death. Jesus healed because before and beyond death there is new life. There is a wholeness death cannot break. A work not rendered purposeless when it lays down in the dust. You are called into new life. But first, we walk this path with him toward death.
This Lent, if you are finished trying to be God, perhaps you could learn to be God’s child.