I meet monthly with a group of other first-call pastors. We share experiences and support one another in our new lives in parish ministry. At our last meeting, we talked about Lent and Holy Week; about our expectations and concerns as we, new pastors, move into our first "Ministerial Marathon," as one member in the group described Lent.
Our conversation moved to Ash Wednesday, the solemn and dusty day that marks the beginning of Lent. We pondered the depth and importance of the act of tracing a cross on a fellow mortal's forehead and reciting the words, "remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." And we all agreed that we had an obligation to mark the foreheads of everyone who approached - babies, children, and adults alike.
I assume that not many of us in life have had to stare into the eyes of a small child and remind them that they are mortal. I know, deep in my heart, that we are all mortal, and all dust, but it brings me to tears when I have to mark an ashen cross on the clean, smooth forehead of a young child. How do you tell a child that even though they have a lifetime ahead of them, death is still inevitable?
Ash Wednesday and Lent force us to come face-to-face with the hardest of all realities: we are mortal. Not one of us is immune to the sting of brokenness and death. Good health, poor health, youth, age, medical care: none of these protect us from the ultimate reality of death. This is why, for many people, this season of Lent is an uncomfortable time. If left unchecked, Lent can be nothing but a depressing reminder of sin, brokenness, and death.
If held together with Easter, however, the dust and mortality of Lent take on a different character. Lent is the dust of everything that needs redemption; Easter is the promise of that redemption.
When we look at the power of sin and death in our own lives, we take comfort in knowing that Jesus, too, suffered temptation, betrayal, pain, and death. Jesus did not just journey to the cross; he journeyed through the cross to resurrection life on the other side. This is God's good news: there is another side.
As people of faith, we live on "the other side," even if we live there imperfectly in this life. We know that on the other side of sin is God's grace, and that on the other side of death is life. We live with the confidence that wholeness is on the other side of brokenness, peace is on the other side of war, and joy is on the other side of fear.
In Lent, we begin with the dust on our foreheads, we continue through the dust in the wilderness, and we see the dust rise into the air as the stone is rolled over the mouth of the tomb. All of this dust reminds us that we were created from dust, by the hands of a God who breathed his own life into our lungs and our souls. God has not abandoned his creation. God has not forsaken us, whom he loves. God's loving act of creation is brought to fulfillment at Easter, when dust becomes more than dust, and life becomes more than life.
So for the rest of this season, I encourage you to embrace your dustiness. Embrace the parts of you that fear and doubt and struggle. Embrace the parts of you that feel pain. Embrace all the parts of you that need redemption, and come to the cross, where all of your dust will be washed away with the hope and promise of the resurrection. You may be dust, but God has promised you life, and life abundant!