Lent: Ashes


Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday.

I knew Lent before I knew Ash Wednesday, but now that I know Ash Wednesday, Lent is all the more meaningful. Every year, I find myself returning to T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name. As I read it this morning, I was reminded of the nature of the season through Eliot’s stammering exploration of religious experience:

“This is the time of tension between dying and birth”

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I’ve been challenged to give up coffee, of all things. It’s not the first time someone has pointed out my incredible addiction to the stuff. But as I’ve reflected on the past year, I came to the conclusion that this would be the most meaningful discipline for a number of reasons. Lent is a teacher, and as I consider what 40 days without coffee means, I see at least three lessons I need to learn:

Before I can receive the gift of new life, I must first embrace death.

The imposition of ashes is my identification with my own inability to conjure up the righteousness and joy that are required. These aren’t your fireplace ashes. Last year’s palm branches, waved in joyful celebration to welcome Christ, have been kept and have slowly faded and wilted over the year, in the same way our lives and faith have faded since singing of resurrection power just shy of a year ago. We need resurrection again.
My response when I was first challenged to give up coffee was, “No way! I would die.” Coffee gets me going in the morning, keeps me going in the afternoon, and helps me finish the day at night. It’s not a terribly hard sacrifice compared to many, but the fact that my initial response assumes coffee is vital to my life points to a need for reevaluation, a reevaluation this Lent season will provide.

I need to embrace my dependency as a created being.

Lent is about reminding ourselves that we are not God. As we enter our fast and the pains of hunger, the desire for chocolate, or the headaches of caffeine-free living, we are reminded that our bodies are finite, and that we, along with creation, are dependent on God for life.
How often do I turn to coffee to get me through an early morning, a drab afternoon, or the after-effects of a late night? Rather than accepting my limitations and my need for rest, another cup offers me a level of immortality which God never intended. Over and over again, God commands Sabbath rest, a reminder of Israel’s complete dependence on God. Without coffee, I am left to the strength which God gives each day, and nothing more. Whatever else my day requires beyond that, I must learn to leave in God’s hands.

I need to experience longing.

Lent culminates with Easter, when our fast is broken and we now return to those things we’ve missed. For Israel, even though they didn’t get it, Christ was the fulfillment of all for which they longed. For humanity, Christ’s resurrection brought new life to our world and our bodies wracked with death. As Paul writes in Romans, all creation groans for redemption, awaiting that day when resurrected life is made manifest in its fullest. John would finish his apocalypse with a cry of longing for this to be true.
It’s been less than a day and the headache is already growing. As I drove past my usual Starbucks this morning, I wanted to stop and experience the warm embrace of the Green Lady. I enjoy coffee as much as I’m addicted to it, and as I long for the day when my headache ceases and I can sit down with a book and some coffee, I am reminded that I must even more so long for embrace of Christ, and pray and watch for that day.

I wasn’t able to join in a corporate observance of this day, but as I end my day in prayer, I join in the prayer of the Church for the start of this season:

  Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.


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