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“You are dust and to dust you shall return”

March, 2022 – Faithful Living ~

These words have been spoken directly to me several times in my life.

The sanctuary is dimly lit for the Ash Wednesday service, and the candles on the communion table softly illuminate the chancel area. Some fronds from the previous Palm Sunday are burned before us. The smoke rises like the prayers of the faithful and a sooty tincture is prepared for imposition. Soon we step into the center isle and make our way to the front. As the ashes brushed my forehead with the right index finger of pastor’s hand in the sign of the cross, the familiar words are spoken almost in a whisper and the realization of my mortality rings true again.

I keenly know that my life is but a vapor and even more than that, I have recalled with greater weight, the passion and sacrifice of my Lord. Of what Jesus endured…for me. And you.

Christians around the world during this 40-day Lenten period leading up to Easter focus their attention on personal introspection and abstinence. According to Methodist tradition, the word Lenten is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Lecten describing the lengthening of the days of Spring.

Some churches do not even recognize this ritual. They pass it by without even a glance. To others, entering into this time is what draws us closer…closer to the One who became sin who knew no sin—so we could be unequivocally unshackled of its burden. The importance is deep and meaningful.

For some reason, God makes a big deal out of 40. The number 40, is mentioned 159 times throughout the Old and New Testaments according to Billy Hallowell. Let me list a few: God had the Israelites wander in the wilderness 40 years—1 year for each of the 40 days when specific leading men spied out the land they were to inherit. Noah was 40 days and nights in the Ark with his family and the animals. Moses hung out with God for two 40 day/night periods. Goliath taunts the Israelites for 40 days before the youngest son of Jesse steps up and kills him. There were 40 days from the crucifixion to the ascension of our Lord. The lashing/flogging limit for punishment was set at 40 minus 1. It was determined generally, that 40 lashes were sufficient to kill the guilty. So, the penalty was placed at 39 if authorities concluded that a person could withstand the torture. The kings: Saul, David and Solomon each ruled for 40 years.

And, this one is most important. After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John, He was forced into the wilderness for a 40-day ministry prelude to be tempted by Satan himself. For this reason alone, many celebrate this season of preparation.

When I think of dust, nothing beautiful is conjured up in my mind. Nevertheless, God fashioned man in His likeness from the dirt of the ground. He then breathed into the mold and the mud became a living soul. We were created from the ground and we will return to the same at our appointed time because of original sin.

Knowing our place in history and in the world, gives us a greater awareness that our lives are merely a flash in the pan. From the perspective of eternity, we are basically here today and gone tomorrow. However, we are indeed important in the ultimate plan of our Creator. And yet, the dust part brings the brevity of life back into focus. While we have breath, all of us have work to do on behalf of our Lord. Partnering with the Trinity is a big deal as well.

For those who enter into this season, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to try to wrap our hearts and minds around this profound mystery. The mystery of the cross.

Although Ash Wednesday caught me totally by surprise this year, it does not negate the realization of the horrific and brutal sacrifice that Jesus willingly endured for all people everywhere.

Like the wedding bands that Becky and I wear as a visible sign of the marriage covenant we shared many years ago before God and witnesses, the ashes represent an outward symbol of an inward desire to remember…to remember all that Jesus has done for us.

Allowing ourselves to enter into this beloved mystery again, gives us an opportunity to sincerely adopt a spirit of gratitude for the gift of Himself.

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