Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Ash Wednesday we remember our mortality, our brokenness, the shortness of life.
We remember the ways we miss the mark. We remember our sinfulness. The message of the day is simple, clear, and difficult. Remember you are dust. Remember you will die. Remember your life is short. Remember you won’t, you don’t, always get it right. Not an upbeat message.
I remember the first Ash Wednesday I served as a priest came as a shock. Saying those words over and over, the scrabble of ash on my thumb again and again, as people I cared about stepped forward. I remember reaching out to place ashes on the forehead of a little tiny newborn. Her parents had waited so long, had been through several miscarriages before their daughter was born. Her birth was so yearned for, her life was so precious. And on Ash Wednesday I reminded her, “to dust you shall return.”
All of us go down to the grave. No one escapes. Like I said, not an upbeat message. We live in a world that avoids death. We don’t like the topic. We don’t like to see death. Then we face news like today. 17 dead at a high school in Broward county Florida, another mass shooting. Children killed. Ash Wednesday comes like a tolling bell. Remember, remember. Life is a precious gift, and life is short, too short.
Last night, after the pancakes, some of us stuck around, playing with the littlest kids and catching up. One of our new parents repeated an aphorism they’d heard recently about raising children: “The days are long, but the years are short.” Sometimes the days are short as well.
Our readings today from the prophet Isaiah and from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians meditate on the question of time. The prophet declares day of the Lord. Paul speaks of the “Acceptable time.” When is the time to be serious about faith? When is the time to make amends? When is the time to act for change? Now, Paul argues, now is the acceptable time. Time is a finite resource. Don’t just look busy, get busy.
The Islamic Scholar Omid Safi recently quoted Dr. Martin Luther King in an essay on time. “Time is morally neutral, “ King said. Safi elaborated:
“Time is morally neutral…Things do not get better by themselves. They also do not get worse by themselves.”
Time marches on, says Safi, and we have to choose whether we are along for the ride or working to change direction. Time does not heal all wounds, not on its own. Time is neutral. The question is what will you do with the time you have? Time does not always mean progress, just as age does not always equal wisdom.
Will this be the time? Will we do more than offer our prayers for the victims of today’s tragedy? Will we act? Will we enact laws to protect our children from gun violence? Is this an acceptable time? How will we use the time we are given?
As we begin this season of Lent, this gift of 40 days. What will you do with this time? I called Lent a gift, and I know that many folks don’t experience Lent as a gift. Often we choose to give something up that is difficult. We try and show that we have personal fortitude and discipline. We avoid chocolate, or sweets. We drop alcohol. Have you ever noticed that many Christians think of Lent as a diet plan?
Father J.J. O’Leary, is a Jesuit priest who used to teach at my college, the University of San Diego. JJ preached perhaps the most memorable homily in my history of Ash Wednesdays. A prolifically brief homilist, his reflections seldom lasted over five minutes, something I can’t promise you today. J.J.’s homilies were short, and they often concluded with the direction to “go into your hearts” and consider some spiritual truth he had shared.
That Ash Wednesday Fr. J.J. said simply that when we give something up for Lent, God doesn’t want us to give up things that make us happy. If we enjoy chocolate or a martini at the end of a long day we shouldn’t give them up. God wanted us to give up something that made us sad. He then said. “I invite you go into your hearts to consider what you might give up that makes you sad.”
How could these 40 days be a gift? How could your discipline help you make the most of your time? How could you use the time well?
I want to suggest a discipline to you this year, one that is simple, direct, and will take very little time. This discipline won’t take long hours, but it will ask you to reflect on your days. On page 836 of the Book of Common Prayer is a “General Thanksgiving.” This prayer is meant to be used in your morning or evening prayers, after meditating on scripture or praying the office. It was written by the late preacher of Harvard’s Memorial Church, and professor of systematic Theology at Virginia Seminary, Charlie Price.
The heart of Dr. Price’s Thanksgiving prayer is this:
We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best
efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy
and delight us.
We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.
The discipline I invite you to this Lent is to take stock, in the mode of an old Jesuit practice known as the examen. Take a look at the prayer on Page 836 of the prayer book. Maybe do this daily, maybe once a week when you come to church early and sit in silence before worship begins. What are the tasks and accomplishments this day, this week that have “satisf[ied] and delight[ed]” you? Give thanks to God.
Then also, ask yourself honestly, take stock of the past day, the past week. What are those “disappointments and failures?” Offer them up to God. We are all sinners. We all miss the mark. Pretending like we don’t miss the mark just makes us better at denial. (Being good at denial is not a positive character trait). Take stock. Be honest with yourself. Then realize, our disappointments and failures are also gifts. We thank God for disappointments and failures, because they help us realize we need God.
I invite you to consider whether using the General Thanksgiving in the back of the prayer book might be a simple discipline you could take on during this season of Lent. Use it as an examination of your conscience, and a way to turn back to God with some regularity. More than that, I invite you to join me on this journey. Ask me how the discipline is going for me. Ask one another.
Lent is a reminder that we have limits. Our life is short. We don’t always get things right. Lent it meant to humble us, to return us to the dust. (Humble means “earthy” after all). And so Lent is a journey made richer and easier with good company. I invite you to take your Lenten discipline seriously, but also to share your discipline and to share the load. Take your church community seriously during Lent. Go and find a new face, and ask that person how they are doing. Really listen for the answer. Take time to invest in a friendship, and to talk about the hard stuff of life, the failures and disappointments. Remembering you are dust is hard on souls that don’t like to hear those words.
On a day like today, know that “remember you are dust” is only the first half of the equation. There is good news. Christians believe that death is not final. You are dust. You will go down to the grave, but that is not the end of your story. This mortal life passes away, but you are always God’s. The failures, the disappointments, the tragedies, God is there in the midst of them. God is the enduring love that sees us through the valley. God is the voice insisting always insisting that we love one another better, that we act with justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. God will see you through.
When you take your faith seriously. When you remember that time is finite, and you offer a gift of your time back to God you can hear the echo of our Ash Wednesday words about dust. When we make good use of our time, when we are conscious about our commitment to one another and God, we can remember that death does not have the final word. Yes, today we remember that we are dust. But also: Remember you belong to God, and to God you shall return.