Once, during a trip to the Himalayan Region Vineyard Churches, a group of us assembled along the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. This particular area on the river bank is a frequent cremation site. A man from the Kathmandu Vineyard had died and the church - children included - gathered for the funeral. The cremators wrapped his body, covered it with ghee (clarified butter, highly flammable), lay him on a funeral pyre, and then set it ablaze. We sat there for a good hour, watching the fire. There was a light wind and ashes sprung from the pyre and glided everywhere through the air, some landing like flecks of dandruff on our clothes.
This image of the church looking unflinchingly at a funeral pyre on the banks of the Bagmati is what Ash Wednesday is all about.
Throughout the Christian story, death is characterized as a hostile Power that rages against creation and God's Kingdom and nothing - not you, not me, not anything - is immune to its tyranny. Death is entirely pervasive and inevitable and will only properly expire when Jesus returns and makes all things new. As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, it is "The last enemy to be destroyed."
Nobody likes this arrangement and we don't enjoy thinking about death or our own mortality. Better to ignore morbid subjects and pretend they don't exist.
But no spiritual benefit comes from denying reality, even if the reality in question is as ghastly as death. And that's precisely why Christians need Ash Wednesday.
Life: Now and Forever
Instead of immobilizing us, Christians staring into the unavoidable fire of death and witnessing its effects circulating around us are meant to hear two vital spiritual invitations. And both invitations comprise the heart of Ash Wednesday.
First, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, Ash Wednesday reminds us to "Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil." In other words, don't waste another minute of your life! Now is the time to deepen your experience of God, to be filled with the Spirit, to love your neighbour as yourself, to confess and forgive and make amends, to embody Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, to discern and consent fully to the will of God in your life, etc. You're not going to be around indefinitely - the end of your life as you know it could even be today or tomorrow or this year - so make sure you live and love accordingly.
Second, Ash Wednesday invites us to reinvigorate our trust in God and an equally vigorous hope in the Resurrection. The Book of Common Prayer says it this way during the burial service: "We, therefore, commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, looking for that blessed hope when the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first [emphasis added]."
We may be dust, but we are dust beloved by God. God breathed his Spirit into us and made us in his image at the outset in a sheer act of loving us into being. And though we may die, God will one day breathe Resurrection life into us anew. That day, our bodies - our ashes - will be given beauty and breath again. Like Jesus, we will be raised imperishable, in the flesh! But it gets better. The whole cosmos will be similarly raised. This is the ultimate Christian Hope - Jesus' return and the Kingdom coming in full and bringing about the Resurrection of the dead, the renewal of all things; life everlasting.
Lent and Easter
Ash Wednesday - by virtue of putting death into sharp, bitter focus - reminds us to live intentionally as Christians. It also reminds us that though death is inevitable, Resurrection is too. Death may be the last painful word, but Resurrection is the Christian exclamation mark that changes our life sentence.
And that is why Ash Wednesday day is the most appropriate entrance into Lent. During Lent, Christians have historically taken on spiritual practices like reflection and repentance; fasting, prayer, and almsgiving; and delved into listening to and praying with scripture. These practices encourage us to live our lives as Christians with greater spiritual intentionality. We do this each day as Easter draws nearer, joyfully remembering that we are an Easter people and that ours is an Easter faith.
Don't let this strange yet powerful day in the Church calendar escape you. Allow God to use Ash Wednesday to form you into a deliberate, hopeful person who lives both in the present and future. To this end, perhaps you may even wish to mark your forehead with the sign of the cross this day, as many Christians do.
In one way or another, each of us has to face our own inescapable funeral pyre. In light of this reality and in the meantime, I bless you this Ash Wednesday to be set on fire with the love of God both now and forever and, as the Jesuits say, to similarly "Go, set the world on fire." For dust you are and to dust you shall return.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.