‘Remember that you are dust’

Feb 13, 2018 by

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This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Growing up in a Mennonite church, I knew nothing about Lent. But when I was in seminary, I worked as an assistant minister in a United Methodist church. In 1982 I participated in my first Ash Wednesday service, and it was one of the most meaningful services I had ever attended.

The lighting in the building and sanctuary was dim; the organ played softly. We read Scripture litanies calling for repentance, and long prayers of confession. An elderly, distinguished retired pastor gave a fiery sermon, confronting our failure to do justice, followed by a call to examine ourselves, deny ourselves, and prepare ourselves during the season of Lent. Then we came forward to the altar, silently, to receive a smudge of dark gray ashes on our foreheads, in the shape of the cross, as the pastor solemnly told us, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I was so moved by that service that as soon as I became a pastor, in 1984, I instituted an Ash Wednesday observance in my Mennonite congregation.

But why does the pastor, at the height of the service, tell people, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? Isn’t that morbid? Isn’t that a denial of our hope in eternal life? But before we can enter eternal life, first we must accept death. I think that is perhaps the central message of Ash Wednesday and of Lent.

We all rationally know we are going to die, but we mostly live in denial of it because it scares us too much. Because of our fear and denial of death, we try to make ourselves at least seem immortal. We spend exorbitant amounts of money on diets and pills and vitamins and treatments and chemicals in order to squeeze as many minutes into our own lives as possible. We pursue every pleasure, always looking for something new and exciting, to distract us from death and to try to make life meaningful. We try to create monuments of metal, stone, paper, digital memory or flesh that will outlast us and somehow keep us alive. These are the selfish pursuits of an ego in dread.

But as Jesus said, those who try to gain their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will gain them. It is only when we live our lives for that which is greater than ourselves that we truly begin to live. It is only when we lay down our lives for the sake of God’s righteousness that we enter Life. The Prayer of St. Francis concludes by saying, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

So first we must face our mortality, not deny it or evade it. We are not immortal. We came from the dust and we will return to the dust. We should not try to become immortal or seem immortal. Instead, we must let go of the selfish ego and turn our lives over to love. Love — care for others and their well-being — is what is immortal. But even here we must be careful that we do not love others so that we become immortal; that is simply hidden selfishness. We must accept our own death. We must accept our finitude. We must place our finite lives entirely in God’s hands. Only by dying to ourselves may we hope in life.

This is what Jesus did. After much anguish in Gethsemane, he accepted suffering, torture and death. He accepted that God’s hope must come through letting go of life, doing God’s will alone, and trusting in God. There is no empty tomb without acceptance of death and living for God.

I am no spiritual hero. I fear death. But each day I breathe in the love of Jesus and the power of his Spirit. In little ways I keep practicing self-giving love. And in the end I trust God to do whatever God will do. No matter what happens, I will be guided by love.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois. He blogs at fmcbiblestudy.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.

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