When I first heard about Lent, it sounded like a strange sort of diet: This person was giving up chocolate, the other was giving up sugar, and a third was giving up TV. To what end, I was never sure. It seemed to me like a religious do-over for failed New Year’s resolutions.
Lent wasn’t practiced in the church of my youth. We focused on the joy of the resurrection, not the sorrow of the cross. We sang “Blessed Assurance”, “To God be the Glory”, and “I’m so Happy in Jesus”. And if we didn’t sing enough, old Dwight would stand up, arthritic hands gripping the seat in front of him, and belt out “Victory in Jesus”. We didn’t often hear of ashes and death.
Once, though, a pastor at camp invited us to come forward to have our foreheads marked with ash, explaining that it signified our death to sin and self, and surrender to the life of Jesus within us. It was then that I first understood that death precedes life instead of following it. Ever after, whenever I saw him, he would gently touch that spot on my forehead and say, “It’s still there,” those ashes of surrender that marked my living.
“You were made from the dust, and to dust you shall return,” God said to Adam at the very beginning. “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live.” Paul said later. “I am nothing but dust and ashes,” Abraham admitted to God in Genesis 18.
Ash is commonly used as a fertilizer, to prepare a garden or tillable land for more robust and healthy growth. It provides nutrients that enrich the soil to produce a greater abundance from the seed planted in it.
Could it be that ashes have the same effect on our souls? Can the ashes of our failures and sorrows birth in us something that nourishes our spirits and causes our lives to flourish? Resurrection doesn’t happen without a preceding death. Light isn’t perceived unless we are familiar with darkness.
“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” – John 12:24
Even though I don’t observe Lent, I understand how ashes mark our lives. We wear the ashes of regret on our foreheads, bringing the marks of sorrow and need to the cross. Before we can speak of resurrection, we must confront this death. We must experience the darkness of the tomb before the angel rolls away the stone. He gives us a crown beauty for these ashes, it says in Isaiah. Not just comfort in our grief, but victory, as old Dwight knew – victory in Jesus.
In the world around us, death marks the end of something. It signifies loss. But in this Jesus life, death marks beginnings. Emptiness precedes filling. Sorrow gives way to joy. We Christians are a resurrection people, after all.
Those ashes no longer mark my forehead, but their smudge remains on my soul. The longer I live, the more I see the sacred transformation of life out of death and hope out of despair. We must remember the ashes in order to fully appreciate the miracle of resurrection.
Are you in a season of weeping right now? Know that the seed of your faith, planted in the ashes of your loss, and watered with the tears of your sorrow, carries within it the power to birth something beautiful. This is the economy of the kingdom, where nothing is wasted and endings are beginnings.
The sacrifice of Lent isn’t chocolate, or sugar, or social media. It is faith in the God whose love is the resurrecting power that came to bring life out of death, for you and in you. This is a place to rest your weary soul.