One of the things I’ve gotten used to, being a Lutheran in an industry filled with . . . well, mostly not-Lutherans, is that there are times when I’ll reference a belief or practice of my denomination, only to have the person I’m speaking to give me a blank look. For example, this happens when I try to explain why we baptize infants or what we believe about Communion. Today might be one of those days, because according to my calendar, today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
For those of you not in the know, Lent is a period of 40 days that lead up to the celebration of Easter. Technically, Sundays don’t count in those 40 days, but that’s not really important. Lent is a somber time for those of us who observe it. It’s a time of contemplation, self-sacrifice, and repentance, a time to reflect on our sin and our need for a Savior.
Now you may be somewhat familiar with the practice of “giving something up for Lent.” Some Christians practice this, some don’t. For example, most Catholics give up eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Personally, I usually give up caffeine during the season of Lent. There’s also a tradition in some churches of giving up the world “Alleluia” or “Hallelujah” during Lent. They will not sing or say that word, “burying” it, if you will, so that it can be resurrected on Easter morning. The reason why we give stuff up is not to somehow earn favor with God. Instead, it’s a way to remind ourselves of how much God gave up for us.
But there is one tradition that I’ve always associate with Lent, and it’s the practice that gives Ash Wednesday its name. During tonight’s worship service, my congregation will observe a ritual known as “The Imposition of Ashes.” During the service, people will be called forward so that one of the elders or I, using ashes of palm fronds, can draw the shape of a cross on their foreheads. As we do that, we remind them, “Remember: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a visible reminder of our own mortality, the punishment our sins deserve, and what was ultimately done to rescue us from that fate.
Am I sharing this information just to educate you? No, not really. Instead, I see it as a call for all of us, whether we observe Lent or not, whether we will wear an ash cross on our foreheads today or not, to remember and reflect on what we are: we are but dust and ashes to whom God has given life. Our sins would condemn us to remain only that. But thanks be to God, His grace, poured out through Jesus Christ, makes us more than just dust. We are forgiven. We are redeemed. We are called to be His children.