Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-13
As seasons and holidays go, I’m going to venture a guess that Lent isn’t at the top of your list of seasons you look forward to. For most of us, it’s probably one of those seasons we know is important in the life of the church and that we’re supposed to appreciate it, but its significance nevertheless eludes us. A lot of us probably come to Lent with a bit of apprehension, partly because we’re not quite as into is as we believe we’re supposed to be. And partly because we’re not even sure what it’s all about…other than it’s somber and more serious than the other seasons. If that describes you, please know you’re not alone. I honestly believe it describes most Christians these days.
Maybe one of the reasons it’s difficult to wrap our heads around Lent is because it’s not in the Bible, at least not in the same way that Christmas and Easter and Pentecost are in the Bible. These holidays—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—are based on actual biblical events. Christmas is the holiday in which we celebrate Christ’s birth, God’s coming into our world. Easter, his resurrection. And Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon and filled the believers and gave birth to the church. But Lent? There’s no biblical event it commemorates. I think this is the reason some Christian traditions don’t observe Lent; because it’s a “man made” season, so to speak. But the fact is, a majority of modern-day Christian recognize and try to somehow observe the season of Lent.
So, what is Lent about? Well, it’s actually similar to the season of Advent in that it’s a time of preparation for a particular holy day. During Advent, we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth by looking back remembering how the prophets foretold of Messiah’s coming. And we also use that time to look forward by reminding ourselves that Christ will return to earth to fulfill God’s ultimate plan of redemption. We look back to prepare for the remembrance of his first coming, and we look forward as a way of preparing for his second coming. That’s Advent.
Like Advent, Lent is a time of preparation for a holy day. In this case, Easter. Easter is, of course, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and, as a corollary, our own resurrection from the dead. Because Christ was raised to life after which he returned to his place of eternal glory, so shall we be raised to eternal life as well. Easter is all about life. It’s about the end of death. And Lent is when we prepare for this celebration of life. By doing what? Somewhat ironically, by focusing on our mortality; on the end of our lives. On death, if you will.
Sr. Theresa Aletheia Nobel wrote an article about this very subject matter. So rather than me trying to reinvent the wheel, I’m going to read what she wrote. She gets full credit for what I’m sharing with you over the next few minutes. She entitles her article, “If you do only one thing this Lent, remember your death.” Here’s what she says.
A Savior who simply makes our life easier is a balm and a comfort. But a Savior who judges us at the end of our lives and who saves us from death is a more intense figure. It’s not as easy to integrate this Jesus into a distracted life. Perhaps this is why the spiritual practice of remembering one’s death has waned in popularity.
There is an apparent lack of focus in today’s culture on preparation for the end of one’s life. Even among many people of faith, Christianity has become merely a path to greater simplicity, comfort, and ease. Some resent the idea that God’s ways are not our ways (see Isaiah 55:8-9). They refuse to surrender their lives—especially their opinions, plans, and desires—to God. People cannot stomach mystery these days. Anything that involves the discomfort of obscurity is not welcome. Death is among those things rejected in modern society. Death surrounds, infiltrates, and inhabits much of modern culture, but it is seldom faced and rarely talked about. And when it is, death is often minimized and reduced to material realities.
Death is not a popular topic even among religious people whose lives should be straining toward heaven (see Philippians 3:13). Other aspects of the faith are often emphasized while death is left as something to deal with at the very end of life. Indeed, death is a frightening specter, a dazzling paradox, and a terrifying abyss. It is no wonder that people desire to ignore it. But paying no heed to it will not make it go away.
Christians in particular are called to meditate on death—perhaps the most terrifying reality in human existence—not because humans have the stamina to face off with death, but because we have a Savior. The Book of Sirach (a book in the Apocrypha, which is a part biblical cannon used by the Roman Catholic Church) encourages this fundamental spiritual practice of remembering one’s death: “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin” (7:38). St. Benedict considered the practice so important that he included it in his Rule for monasteries, written in the 6th century: “Keep death daily before one’s eyes” (4.47). The Imitation of Christ—perhaps the most widely read Christian classic after the Bible—includes an entire section on the importance of meditating on one’s death.
Justifiably, many people are afraid to incorporate the practice of remembering death into their lives. But the fear of meditating on death prevents one from losing a fear of death. The early Church fathers are quite emphatic that meditation on death is necessary in order to think about it in a Christian way.
The Christian faith means nothing if it does not impact how death is viewed. Christ has transformed death! Death for the Christian is not annihilation or despair but rather a step into the loving arms of a Savior.Lent is a perfect time to begin a practice of remembering one’s death.
Ash Wednesday immediately focuses our attention on death when the cross—the tool of death that became the tool of our salvation—is traced on our foreheads. The words the priest or minister says are inspired by the words that God said to Adam and Eve after the first sin, “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” (see Genesis 3:19). A shorter way of saying this is “Remember your death.”
These words—remember your death—illumine the entire penitential season of Lent. Christians need a Savior because we are but dust and ashes. We need a Savior because the only person who can save us from death is Jesus Christ, who is Life itself. In the Lenten season, as we meditate on the central mysteries of the faith, the mystery of death—transformed by the Cross—is a great place to start.
I for one really appreciate Sr. Theresa’s thoughts on Lent. Yes, during Lent we think about death, but we think about it in a Christian way. We think about it with Easter in mind. Like she said, the cross—Good Friday—is all about the work of a Savior, a Savior we need because we are but dust and ashes. We need a Savior because we need saving from death, and only Jesus can do this. Easter really loses its significance unless we’re cognizant of the fact that apart from the Cross and the Resurrection, death would have the last word. But it doesn’t.
And so, we prepare for the celebration of the Resurrection by taking time to remember why the Resurrection is necessary. So, if you decide to come by the church today to receive the ashes, I’ll use them to make the mark of the cross on your forehead. On your forehead, it becomes a sign to others of who you are—a follower of Jesus who has given you life through his own death on the cross. Wear it boldly.
You can drive up to the portico between noon and 1 this afternoon and between 5 and 6 this evening. You can stay in your vehicle and I’ll come to you. Let’s pray.
Lord, Holy One, have mercy on us.
We confess our sins to you.
We have fallen short of your glory and without your mercy and grace, we would be dust.
We repent now.
Lord, as we enter into this Lenten season, be near to us.
Help us, by your Holy Spirit, to feel right conviction and repentance for our sin.
Help us, by your Spirit, to have the strength to overcome the enemy.
Thank you, Lord, that Easter is coming!
Death has no sting, no victory, because of Jesus!
Glory and honor and praise to His name!
Thank you for rescuing us.
Help us keep both the weight and the joy of this season in our hearts and we move through the next several weeks.
Help us bear the good fruit of your Spirit.
Thank you that the ashes on our forehead do not symbolize our ultimate reality.
From dust we might have been formed, but our bodies, our spirits, ourselves, await beautiful redemption and the restoration of all things.
Help us long and look forward to that day, and let it come quickly, Lord Jesus.