Dust You are, and to Dust you will Return: Reflection on Ash Wednesday (and announcement for Lent)

Ashes are placed on the forehead as a sign of humility and mortality

A Reflection: Death and Creation

I am a Southern Baptist, as I’ve noted here in this blog, who is part of an Anglican congregation while I’m in London. This brings up the issue of whether or not to celebrate Lent. Baptists, not being very keen on liturgy, have tended to avoid such things as Lent and most holy days (Passion Week and Christmas excepting). Nevertheless, there has been a growing movement among Baptists, particularly of the younger generations, to re-engage with the practice of Lent. For me, this year at least, it was not an issue. I was going to celebrate Lent. Now, I could give a detailed argument about why it’s appropriate for Baptists to do so and encourage those who are reluctant to nevertheless engage in the traditional practice of preparation for Easter, but that argument has been made by numerous others much more convincingly than I could deliver it here.

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the period in the Christian calendar referred to as Lent. During Lent, for forty days, many Christians determine to fast in some way, shape or fashion. For some this means a type of food fast. For others, they forgo some sort of pleasure or distraction. They may forgo something like chocolate, ice cream, television, a form of social media or something else entirely. Whatever form the fast takes, it is a time meant to help the believer refocus on the impending time of passion week, at the end of Lent, which marks the remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion, and, ultimately, upon the Easter victory. While it is tempting to focus on the death of Christ and treat it somberly, traditionally the focus has been on an anticipation of Easter. Perhaps a (very) brief history of Lent may be in order.

In the early Church (prior to the fall of Rome), almost all new converts to the budding Christian faith were baptized on Easter Sunday. We know from various correspondences that Christians had already adopted worship, prior to work, early in the morning on “the day following Saturn’s day (Saturday),” now known as Sunday. The day was chosen because it was the day of the week when Christ rose from the dead. In this way, every Sunday, on some level, was a remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. Easter Sunday, or more correctly Resurrection Sunday, however, was given a particular significance. This was the Sunday following the Jewish celebration of Passover, and it marked the annual anniversary, in a way, of Jesus’ resurrection. For the early Church it was the resurrection that was the most foundational event for their faith, even moreso than the incarnation (Christmas) or crucifixion (Good Friday). Further, baptism is a picture of the new life that Christians receive now and at Jesus’ return both in solidarity with, and as a result of the resurrection of Jesus. Thus Resurrection Sunday (Easter) and baptism were tied together very intimately in the early Church.

Also in the early Church, new converts went through a detailed catechism (instruction) prior to being baptized. This was to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus as they understood: “to make disciples.” This catechetical period was concluded by the baptismal candidates engaging in a period of intense prayer and fasting. Initially, this was likely done from either Good Friday or the day before (Maundy Thursday) until Easter morning. However, the period of time was gradually extended. Eventually, it was thought that the period should be set at forty days because this was the length of time that Jesus fasted in the desert prior to beginning his adult ministry. However, the period of Lent as we know it lasts 46 days. So what’s going on? Well, it was soon decided that Sundays should not be considered fasting days because they were celebrations of the resurrection. Therefore every Sunday was a break in the forty days of the fast. This leads to an interesting paradox today.

Lent is in large part a solemn season, and it focuses in large part upon the impending anniversary of the death of our Savior. Despite this, it is punctuated by these reminders that death is not the end, that a resurrection soon follows. We are also reminded that by the death of Jesus, and his subsequent resurrection, we ourselves are saved from the finality of death. The actions of Christ, which culminate in the final week of Lent, remove death’s sting and turn Satan from a roaring lion into a de-clawed kitten. Even the week of Jesus’ death itself is sandwiched between the celebrations of the Triumphal Entry (Palm Sunday) and the Resurrection. It is this odd juxtaposition of life and death or mourning and rejoicing, that make up the season of Lent. The fasts of the week are punctuated by the feasts of Sunday.

Even the service of Ash Wednesday, one of the more solemn services, has this odd juxtaposition. As ashes are spread upon the foreheads of the faithful, the ultimate symbol humility, mourning and death, the minister/vicar says something: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On the surface this is a clear indication of our need to humble ourselves, to be reminded of our common fate of death, and to approach the impending season with an appropriate measure of solemnity. But that’s not all that’s happening. If those words sound familiar beyond that specific context, they should. As many of you likely know, these are the words of God spoken as part of the curse upon the man. But even in the curse, there is hope. God declares that one day a person will triumph over the serpent for all time. God makes a provision for the man and the woman by providing covering, in the very midst of their sin. The declaration itself is a reminder of God’s act of forming man from dust and breathing into him life itself. As we are reminded to be humble and recall our own mortality, we are simultaneously reminded of our existence as God’s specially and carefully made creation and of the life that comes from him.

“Dust you are and to dust you will return” is a reminder of our reliance upon God for our very being. Before we get too full of ourselves or think that we are somehow a “self-made” person, or that we’ve earned all our possessions by our own abilities or that we don’t owe anyone else anything, we’re reminded, “dust you are and to dust you will return.” The only difference between us and the dirt we shake off our shoes is that God has given us His breath; and even the very dust was created by Him. We are utterly reliant upon God for our very being and continued existence. Rather than something mournful, though, if we view this through the lens of God’s Kingdom, that means something wonderful. We are not abandoned. We are not an accident. We were intentionally made and God is still with us, sustaining us and preserving us. And he is faithful to bring to completion that which he begins. We are dust and to dust we will return, but God created us from dust the first time and can (and will) recreate us out of dust the second time. That’s what the resurrection means, a recreation of our very being. Although death seems to be in focus for much of Lent, death is not the end. The solemnity of the Lenten fast that is punctuated throughout by reminders of the resurrection and has an exclamation on the end: Easter Sunday!

Maybe this changes how we view the Lenten fast. Maybe it’s not merely a sacrifice of something, but a sacrifice for someone. On one level, like all our other actions, this should be viewed as an act of worship to God who has redeemed us. But on a baser level, this can mean a small measure of solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ who have little or nothing. While empathy and solidarity are nice, however, perhaps there is something more that we can do. Less important than what you give up, at least as I see it, is the positive change you can make. Maybe it’s something little, maybe it’s a grander gesture, I can’t make that determination for you. Perhaps, though, this Lenten season you consider what you can give up not for the sake of giving it up, but for the sake of providing new life for someone else. Perhaps we should punctuate our felt losses toward providing the means for another’s celebration. After all, we are all dust in the end and the beginning.

Maybe it’s also time we make a more permanent commitment. God’s act of created humanity, while it seems to end with every human life returning to dust, nevertheless resulted in a continuous created activity. The human race keeps growing and developing and innovating. The death of Jesus, though a single event within history, had “ripple effects throughout history” as C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity. The resurrection, which we celebrate after Lent, was not a temporary resuscitation, but had a lasting and permanent impact. And the new creation we already are in Christ has a sustained impact, even after our return to dust. So perhaps we consider small commitment, however large or small, that we begin during Lent, and then see if we can’t continue to daily remake that commitment. Yes, there might be small hiccups along the way, but faithfulness, the type of commitment that can change the world, is about the long term, that which matters in the eternal Kingdom of God, not the immediate. So what about you? What change will you make?

Lent Announcement

Well, I’ve decided that one of the things I am going to do this Lent season is post a weekday Lent mini-devotional. So, beginning tomorrow, Thursday, I will begin to post short reflections on the book of Galatians. The schedule I will follow is below and I will be making a page on this blog that gives that schedule with links to the relevant reflection posts once they are up. I will likely continue to post other things, but the main focus during Lent will be these short reflections. I have chosen to do Galatians so that I focus on just a few verses and keep the posts relatively short. If you come back to this blog (or follow it via e-mail) everyday I’ll have a post that includes the KJV text (since it’s public domain), a link to the NIV text, and a short reflection. I’m inviting you to join the conversation. Just say how it impacts you, or what you’re confused about, or what you think it means. The bible is often read best in community. Again, these will be much shorter than my other posts, and ideally should be readable in under ten minutes. See the schedule below:

Galatians Lent Readings

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6
Thursday 1:1-5 2:1-5 3:1-6 4:1-7 5:1-6 6:1-6
Friday 1:6-9 2:6-10 3:7-14 4:8-16 5:7-12 6:7-10
Monday 1:10-12 2:11-14 3:15-20 4:17-20 5:13-15 6:11-14
Tuesday 1:13-16 2:15-18 3:21-25 4:21-23 5:16-18 6:15-18
Wednesday 1:17-24 2:19-21 3:26-29 4:24-31 5:19-26 Summary

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