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Ash Wednesday and the Good News of Lent

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Remember that you are dust–

And to dust you will return.

My daughter turned to me as she watched the long line of worshipers walk past my pastor husband and receive the smudge of black in the shape of the cross on their foreheads. Her eyes looked almost ready to well up with tears, “That’s really sad what he’s saying to them,” she said. “Yes, it is sad,” I agreed. “But don’t forget the good news!”

I have written before about my wrestling matches with the season of Lent. Why are we doing all of this often silly self-deprivation, so rarely linking it with any connection to actually growing in our faith, so burdening ourselves with more works, and, worst of all, convincing ourselves that we have to wait 40 days to be able to hear the Good News? We are Christians, folks! That means there is no season of life in which God’s grace and the Gospel do not reach to us!

Jesus really, really doesn’t care if you give up chocolate or Diet Coke. (Although I guess you could argue too much of either is bad use of the body He gave you.) He doesn’t want some token offering of no meat or no dessert. If giving those things up helps you grow in your faith and reminds you to pray or trust God, awesome! Go for it! But you don’t need to proclaim it from the housetops. And you don’t have to do it because everyone else is or to prove yourself to God. As Eugene Cho said so much better than I ever could,

“Umm, I didn’t ask you to give up coffee. I asked you to surrender your life.” – God

But in my wrestling match with Lent, I guess I’m starting to wise up to some of the good stuff too. Yes, Lent can be treated like some sort of empty ritual. We can use it to avoid the message of God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ. Or we can stop to recognize how Good News is hidden deep within it, right from the start of Lent. It’s right in the Ash Wednesday service.

Remember that you are dust…

You wouldn’t think this would be good news. Unless you’ve read Genesis lately.

“(T)hen the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, NRSV).

See, dust is scary to us. When we hear the second part of the sentence, “and to dust you will return,” we are lost in thinking about our own mortality. It is a sobering experience to receive the ashes. It is even more sobering to hold your one-year old baby in your arms and have the ashes imposed on his forehead. “Sorry, kids. No matter how bright your future, all humanity really has to offer you is death one day.” That’s their destiny. It’s grim.

But the Good News is there! The Good News is there in the shape of the cross. The cross tells us that even though physical death is our destiny, for those who believe in Jesus, it is not our final destiny! The cross means that Jesus received into Himself the penalty for our sin. As they used to say in the Baptist churches I attended as a child, “Jesus took your death and your hell.” It’s an amazing thing.

And the Good News is also there in the reminder that we got our beginnings as dust-people. We need not be intimidated by the fact that our bodies will turn to dust again. I had a hard time when my dad died because he had asked to be cremated. I didn’t see anything in the Bible that told me this was fundamentally wrong, but it just seemed like such a sudden, grim destruction of his body. Suddenly all that was left of him was gone. But of course this would have happened eventually anyway. It was just acknowledging what is the destiny of all us. But that cremation was not my dad’s final destiny. His resurrection by Jesus is. If God could make Adam out of dust and dirt the first time around, He can remake us out of dust yet again. Oh, there is hope in that, dear friends! Lent reminds us of the darkness of our sin which brought about our destiny to death, but oh how it reminds us of our final destiny to life, if we will but believe in Jesus!

As we come to Lent, let’s lean into the knowledge of our sin and brokenness. Let’s acknowledge the reality of impending death one day. But let’s not feel we have to wait till Easter for the Good News. The Good News that Jesus came to save us, the Holy Spirit is here to empower us, and God the Creator will make our bodies new one day is hidden in the words of Ash Wednesday and in that muddy cross upon our foreheads.

Remember that you are dust–

And to dust you will return.

But also…

You make beautiful things

You make beautiful things

Out of dust

You make beautiful things

You make beautiful things

Out of us

–Gungor

photo credit: Sarah Korf via photopin cc

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