I remember attending an ecumenical prayer breakfast years ago in Kansas City. The speaker was Kansas City’s mayor Emanuel Cleaver. Cleaver was also a Methodist minister and is now a U.S. Congressman. He told a story about a very cold bird on a very cold day. The poor little bird lived in the country and was trying to find a little warmth on the ground near a barn. As he shivered there, steeling himself against the bitter wind, a horse passed by, and the bird soon found himself surrounded by a nice warm pile of manure. Grateful for the warmth, the bird broke into song. A barn cat heard him singing, pounced on him, dug him out, and ate him up. Cleaver said there are three lessons we can learn from this story. (1) Not everyone who dumps on you is your enemy. (2) Not everyone who digs you out is your friend. And (3) if you’re ever up to your neck in it don’t sing.
Ash Wednesday might be one of those times when we don’t sing. Ash Wednesday begins the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter. The season of Lent is a period of fasting and penitence traditionally observed by Christians in preparation for Easter. The length of the Lenten fast, during which observants eat sparingly, was established in the fourth century as 40 days. In the Western churches, where only Sunday is regarded as a festival, the 40-day period begins on Ash Wednesday and extends, with the omission of Sundays, to the day before Easter. The observance of fasting and other forms of self-denial during Lent varies within Protestant and Catholic churches. But Baptists have historically done very little with this season, preferring to wait until Holy Week to pay much attention to these important days in Jesus’ ministry.
As the front door of this reflective season, when the pastor applies the ashes to the forehead of believers he does so by quoting a phrase from Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Ash Wednesday is a reminder of death. It’s way of saying to self-important people like ourselves who have access to the best medical care in the world, a drug for whatever ails us, and a fitness center on every corner, that we are going to die. And age isn’t the deciding factor. Among the last several funerals I’ve conducted were funerals for a 34-year-old woman and a 42-year-old man, both of whom had so very much to live for. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of Hebrews 9:27 – “It is appointed unto man once to die.”
Ash Wednesday reminds us of James 4:14 – “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Ash Wednesday reminds us that while you have been to the funeral of others, one day the funeral will be your own. It will be your body in the casket or your ashes in the urn.
Ash Wednesday is a sobering day. It is not a day for frivolity. It is a day for reflection. It is a day that launches us into a holy season that appeared to end with the death of Jesus on the cross and his burial in the grave. I say “appeared” to end with Jesus’ death because Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. We don’t want to rush the story, but we don’t want to ignore the story either. Our Savior is not just the crucified Christ; He is the crucified / resurrected Christ. He lives today.
That is what gives us hope as we contemplate our death, as we reflect on the day when our heart beats for the last time and when that little death gasp in the last breath will be our own, as we ponder the fact that one day, someone you know will answer her phone and this is the message she’ll hear: “Did you hear the news? John (and put your own name here) died today.” Praise God Jesus defeated death through His death and resurrection. That’s our hope for our own death.
And that is also our hope for the 100 little deaths before we breathe our last. You know what I’m talking about:
· The little death you died when your parents got divorced.
· The little death you died when you got divorced.
· The little death you died when you stood over the grave of a spouse, a child, a parent who meant the world to you.
· The little death you died when you discovered you were addicted to drugs or alcohol or pornography, and the little death you die every time you indulge in these behaviors.
· The little death you died when you got the cancer diagnosis or found out you had Alzheimer’s disease.
· The little death you died when your good friend betrayed you.
· Even the little deaths kids die when they don’t make the team or don’t get the scholarship or blow their part in the concert or get rejected by some girl or boy on whom they have a king-size crush.
We’re talking little deaths that take a little of the life out of us when we face them. Little deaths that, in the moment, seem like a big death and leave us hurt and reeling and broken. Sure, we get over them in time, and often find God uses this brokenness to do good work in and through our lives. But in the moment, it feels like a kind of death.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we die these little deaths before our final death and that there is hope for us in these little deaths too. Because Jesus expereienced rejection and grief and pain and suffering and betrayal, He died little deaths like we do. And Jesus also died the final death too. Because he died these deaths, He understands us. He is sympathetic to us. He is with us. And because He was raised from His final death, He is a living Savior who can give us hope as we face whatever kinds of death come our way.
Tom Long tells this story. A friend of his is a hospital chaplain in Louisville, Kentucky. He left the hospital shortly before noon and attended a service at a nearby church. As a part of the worship the minister inscribed on the chaplain’s forehead a cross made of ashes mingled with oil.
He returned to the hospital, ashes still in place, and began to visit the patients. One of the patients, a woman, who liked to put on a strong appearance and pretend her illness was no big deal, noticed the ashes on his forehead. Thinking it was a smudge of dirt, grabbed a tissue, spit on it, and said, "Come here, hon, you've gotten into something. There’s some dirt on your forehead."
The chaplain artfully dodged the tissue and said, "No, they are ashes. They're supposed to be there." She looked at him, puzzled. So he told her about the meaning of Ash Wednesday, how the day meant that God was with us when we were weak and vulnerable, how we were but dust, ashes, and God was with us taking us toward Easter even when life was broken, tragic, and sad. He told her, “It’s a sign that God loves me when life goes to hell.”
The woman reached up and took some of the ashes, marked a cross on her forehead, and said, “I think I need some of that.”
Don’t we all.