Sermon; Ash Wednesday
Today, more than any other day on the Church calendar, we are reminded of our own mortality. In a few minutes I will ask you to kneel before the Lord as a mark of our mortal nature. And a few minutes after that I will place ashes on the foreheads of those present, and invite you watching this service online to do the same with those present in your homes, using the words of imposition: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I am reminded of the funeral liturgy and the words of the commendation: “We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. All of us go down to the dust.” And during the committal service at the graveside we commit the body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Try as we might – whether through science or diet or money or anything else – we all die. Some of us are more acquainted with death than others. Some of us, because of our professions, see death more often. Some of us have recently experienced the death of a friend, spouse, or family member. And this past year we have all been made more aware of death as COVID has ravaged the world.
But it hasn't only been the seemingly never-ending litany of people dying as a result of COVID. Over this past year we have experienced what might be called a thousand little deaths. Businesses. Vacations. Theaters. Schools. Public gatherings. Physical contact such as hugs or handshakes. These, and more, are all things that have experienced a death of some kind. Or, if not those things, how we used to experience them has died. This pandemic that, for us, began in the season where we reflect on our mortality, continues into this Lent as well.
And while Lent rightly asks us to be aware of and reflect on our mortality, that is not the primary focus of Lent. The primary focus of Lent is to make a right beginning. We do this through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. These actions are designed to make us more self-aware, bring us closer to God, and help us make right beginnings.
Over the span of this COVID-inspired Lent, we have certainly been reminded of our mortality. But we have also made new and right beginnings. We have found ways to stay connected through technology. We have continually improved how we present Sunday worship. We have been more intentional about reaching out to people. We have seriously considered how our actions impact others and we have been striving for ways to keep us all healthy and safe.
I've heard some people talk about a return to normal. But the truth is that we will never go back to “the way it used to be.” And really, isn't this what Lent is all about – never going back to the way it used to be? We acknowledge our sins and work toward reconciliation through penitence and forgiveness. Those acts change how things are. We pray, fast, read and meditate. Those acts should change us so that we are different from how we used to be.
All this reminds me of the age-old questions: How would you live if you knew you would die in 30 days? Would you laugh harder? Travel more? Love deeper? Would you change?
That question brings our mortality front and center. Thirty days to live – would you ever go to work? Or would you work on spending time with loved ones?
Lent also asks us to address our morality. Lent asks us to do those very same things, but puts it in God language.
These 40 days of Lent ask us to spend time with the one who loves us without measure. These 40 days of Lent ask us to change our normal. They ask us to never go back to the way things used to be, but to make a new start, a right beginning.
This Lent, what is your new beginning and how will you be changed at Easter?