I know there are professions regularly faced with this reality, particularly the medical field. I know there are people for whom our mortality is a truth that surrounds every moment of their work. And, as a priest, I know I spend more time around death than the average person.
But still, it is a strange thing to tell someone that she or he is going to die.
When many people think of Lent, the first thing that comes to mind is the idea of “giving something up.” Even those who are not a part of traditions that observe Lent likely know friends or family who give up things like sweets, alcohol, meat or something else during Lent. At the least, we see the signs for specials on McDonald’s fish sandwiches on Fridays in Lent!
As a child growing up in an evangelical church along the Lakeshore, I was fascinated by this idea of “giving something up” for a season. The first time I actually mustered the courage was in college — I gave up soda.
Over the years, though, I’ve come to realize that the season of Lent is about more than simply giving something up. Rather, this season is about a time of reorientation.
The season comes from the ancient church practice wherein converts to the Christian faith spent this season preparing for their baptisms at Easter. Eventually, they were joined by their brothers and sisters, fellow Christians who spent the days leading up to Easter in solidarity, praying and fasting with the converts to the faith.
And, of course, the season resonates with the final weeks of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem, as we focus particularly on Christ’s invitation to each one of us to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow him.
Each year, it seems, Ash Wednesday is a bit more difficult for me as a priest. As I develop deeper relationships with parishioners, it becomes a strange act to smudge ash on their heads as I say, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Last year, as one of our oldest parishioners knelt at the rail, I felt tears come to my eyes as I said those ancient words. Surely she knew that she would one day return to dust — I just didn’t want to think about it.
At the beginning of Lent, we are all reminded — priest to pastor to parishioner to visitor — that this life we live is very short. We spend so much time accumulating possessions, trying to manufacture security, fooling ourselves into thinking that this all lasts for ever. But as the pieces of ash are wiped on our foreheads, someone reminds us that we really are only dust after all beloved dust, but dust nonetheless — and to dust we shall return.
And I think there is a profound freedom in this unsettling message.
Because it means that you and I shouldn’t worry so much about securing our positions, about winning the latest political or theological or cultural battle. We are reminded that each of us is not nearly as strong as we think we are, and that some day everything we have fought so hard for will disintegrate into dust and ashes.
So we are freed — we are freed to love instead of spend. We are freed to forgive instead of begrudge. We are freed to open our minds to those who are different than us, knowing that they can teach us God in unexpected ways. We don’t have to hold onto everything as tight as we think we do because we are all beloved dust.
Perhaps you are the sort of person that observes Lent every year with great solemnity. Perhaps you are the sort of person who barely has heard of the season. Regardless, I’d invite you during this time to accept the church’s invitation to look at your life. Consider what sins, what prejudices or ideologies may have trapped you. Find a local church perhaps that offers Ash Wednesday services — it’s never too late, and I know St. John’s is not the only one who offers an evening service!
Discover the freedom and grace in those ashes. Practice a Holy Lent, not just by giving up a treat for a few weeks, but by being willing to enter into the dust and suffering of the lives of those around you. Practice a Holy Lent by answering God’s call to do your part to answer and heal that suffering.
The Rev. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. He is filling in as a Tribune religion columnist for the Rev. Henry Idema, who is on vacation.