Ash Wednesday has been called the most difficult service of the year. More difficult even than Good Friday when we remember the death of our Lord. On Ash Wedensday, we come to acknowledge our own mortality. Traditionally, the words we hear when we have the sign of the cross marked on our foreheads are “From dust you were born and to dust you will return.” Not always an easy thing to hear.
It seems appropriate to begin the Lenten season with this acknowledgement. After all, how can we joyfully accept the new life that is ours through the Good News of Easter if we deny our own death?
My first job out of college was for the American Cancer Society. Through that work I met a number of cancer patients and cancer survivors. It was only a few years before I began my work there that monthly breast self-exams were identified as an excellent method for early detection and successful treatment of breast cancer. But time and time again, when I asked women if they practiced this discipline, the number one reason for a “no” was—I’m afraid I might find something.
That’s how many of us may enter into the season of Lent. It is a time to go deep, to pay attention to our lives, to examine those broken parts of ourselves that may be keeping us from living the full life Christ intends for us all. We’re afraid of what we might find. What if we find broken parts that we have managed to hold together with band-aids up to this point? What if we find empty parts we thought we could fill? What if we find that some parts are missing? Who are we then?
Marcus Borg says that the Lenten journey is about participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This means we may have to let go of some of our parts–the identity conferred by culture, by tradition, by parents, perhaps–and be born into a new way of being. A new life in Christ. A life once again centered around God.
This radical centeredness around God may mean we have to let some parts of us die—those parts that keep us from God. Perhaps destructive behavior, unhealthy relationships, a career that is no longer nourishing, unresolved anger or grief that is keeping us from life that is really life.
One of the traditional scriptures used on Ash Wednesday is from Psalm 51. Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew in me a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10) A right spirit is one that is one that is in relationship with God.
Lent is a time to remove those obstacles which keep us from God, so that we can move closer to God. Acknowledging our own mortality is a good start. But even as we concede with the imposition of the ashes that we come from dust and to dust we shall return, those ashes are imposed in the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross. Nobody gets out of this life alive, but the light of the resurrection waits for us at the end of the journey. That knowledge should renew a right spirit in us all.
You can still join us for A Gentle Lent. Not a daily practice or a rigorous discipline, but a way to find strength through gentleness as we journey toward Easter.
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Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer provides tools and encouragement for the rollercoaster ride of your faith journey. Follow me on Facebook , Instagram and YouTube. You can also follow on TikTok. Get emails to keep up with all that is happening.