By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)
There’s no getting around it – Ash Wednesday is a rather peculiar day in the church calendar. It is when we mark our foreheads with ashes and are confronted with the reality that “we are dust and to dust we will return.” It is a day when we acknowledge our own sinfulness before a Holy God and our need for repentance. I understand why it is not the most popular festival in the church year, but it is a reality that we cannot avoid.
Some years ago, Angela and I were in Lagos, Nigeria, for one of my regular visits as a missionary bishop of the Church of Nigeria. Lagos is a huge, sprawling city that claims more than 15 million citizens – most of whom struggle to survive. The city, one of the largest in Africa, buzzes with activity day and night. Lagos is a profoundly religious city, with lots of lively churches, some with tens of thousands of members. On this particular visit, we worshipped in a church that met on the campus of a large medical school and teaching hospital. Most of the members are medical professionals and the worship style is quite sophisticated and thoroughly evangelical.
Afterwards, we drove back to the guesthouse where we were staying, and on the way we passed through one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Thousands of people live there with none of the services that we take for granted – running water and sewers and electricity. As we were driving through, I saw on a ramshackle building a handwritten sign that grabbed my attention – it read simply: DUST-TO-DUST FUNERAL HOME.
DUST-TO-DUST FUNERAL HOME. That says it all. The people in that neighborhood don’t live very long. Dirt and disease are their constant companions. Thousands of children never go to school because they can’t afford a simple uniform. People live and die with few of the basic necessities, and life and death are not very far apart. DUST-TO-DUST FUNERAL HOME.
And yet the clock is ticking for each one of us, and life is far more fragile than it appears. This recent pandemic has made everyone much more aware of this truth, but instead of thinking through all of its implications, we still get caught up in the distractions of day-today living.
In 1985, Neil Postman (1931-2003), professor for more than 40 years at New York University, wrote a remarkable book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Now translated into more than a dozen languages, Postman’s work has proved to be prophetic in its anticipation that we would soon become caught up in an all-consuming, media-saturated world. Serious engagement with the issues that confront us has been too often replaced with mind-numbing entertainment filled with soundbites and superficial slogans.
This is why we really do need “hit pause” and observe Ash Wednesday and the ensuing season of Lent. May I remind you of that wonderful invitation in our Book of Common Prayer?
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful, were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. In this manner, the whole Congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need that all Christians continually have to renew our repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
Lent, and Ash Wednesday to begin the season, is a time to slow down and refocus our lives on the things that count for eternity. It isn’t that complicated.
PRAY. Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6) When you pray … Jesus takes it as given that we will pray, and for him, prayer is as normal as breathing. But notice the attitude of the prayer. It is to be quiet prayer, personal prayer, not prayer for show. So, pray!
FAST. Jesus says, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen.” (Matthew 6:17) Notice again that Jesus says, “When you fast” – not if you fast! Fasting was an important part of Jewish spirituality, and we need it today, too Fasting has far more to do with time than with diet. Fasting is opening ourselves up to God by removing some of the blockages that so easily get in the way.
GIVE. Jesus said, “So when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3) Jesus repeats the same point … and it’s something that I have discovered – I cannot outgive God. So, give!
STUDY. Finally, we are to read and meditate on the Word of God. Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that!
There is one more thing … we are to TRAVEL LIGHT! Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matthew 6:19)
That takes us all the way back to that DUST-TO-DUST FUNERAL HOME!
Praying you have a Holy Lent.
Your brother in Christ,