A couple of days ago we celebrated Ash Wednesday together at the Big White House. The day marked the beginning of a 40-day period of fasting (excluding Sundays and leading up to Easter) in which we consider our mortality and our sinfulness. We remembered that we are dust and to dust we will return and that death is the result of sin (to which we've all contributed). During these 40 days, we are seeking Christ together and asking, in light of our brief life, "How might we live in accordance to his will and be more transformed into his image?" The ashes, that were administered to the foreheads of the recipients in the symbol of the cross, reminded us of these things and that, but for Christ, we are doomed.
Typically, the ashes used in Ash Wednesday services are from the burned palm fronds of the previous year's Palm Sunday service. Since we didn't have these, Sharon (a very recent widow in Genesis Church) suggested that we burn flowers and vegetation from her husband Mark's memorial service. I thought that very fitting, so that is what we used. And it was a very solemn experience.
The marking of two individuals especially stood out to me. When Sharon herself came forward to be marked, by ashes so personal to her, I said, with the same personal formula for each participant, "Remember, Sharon, you are dust and to dust you will return." With this her eyes lit up, even playfully, and she asked quietly yet hopefully, "Tomorrow?!" To which I responded firmly, "No." (It caught me off guard and I was surprised by my authoritative response. How do I know?!) The next day we met and joked about it and I expressed how when I once faced death while be air-lifted to emergency surgerey, that I, too, felt a sense of relief at the prospect of the battles of life being over and that I understood her hope for escape. To this she gently rebuked me and said that her hope was not driven by the thought of escaping this life, but one of excited anticipation of being with Christ! At that moment, I realized I had much to learn about living with that kind of hope for our destination, namely Christ, rather than with the shallow hope of simply escaping life's hardships.
The second individual that struck me was a little tow-headed pre-school aged boy who with wide blue eyes filled with anticipation and innocence came to be marked, while holding on to the hand of his mother. This was the only child that I marked and it moved me emotionally when I said to him, "Remember, J., you are dust and to dust you will return." And then I blurted, "And God loves you!" I could not remind this little child of his mortality, without also reminding him of the gracious God who loves him. I just could not do it. I realized it is one thing to mark an adult and to remind them of their mortality, but a whole different thing to mark a young child whose understanding is still quite limited.
This Sunday we will be looking at Mark 8 and will be reminded of how slowly Jesus's disciples came to understand who he was (is!). In response to Jesus's question to his disciples of who they say he is, Peter answered correctly when he blurted out, "You are the Christ!" However, when Jesus described to the disciples the things facing the Christ (that he must suffer and die), Peter showed his limited understanding and chastised Jesus. Jesus firmly rebuked him and told him that he didn't understand. The text ends with the haunting words of Christ that calls his disciples, even us, to bear our own crosses and follow him, and to lose our lives for him and the Good News in order to find our lives. Do we stand in anticipation and innocence (like a child) before Christ, hopeful (like a widow) for his sweet presence, willing to bear our cross (like Him!) no matter the cost? If so, He says life, true life, awaits. Do we understand?
Christ be our Guide!