Today for Ash Wednesday I have the privilege of putting ashes on the foreheads of Boys Town youth and staff at our Ash Wednesday service. This is very special for me. It brings me pause, and I am overwhelmed with the significance of what I am doing and saying.
Later today I will stand alongside one of Boys Town’s protestant pastors as we look into the eyes of middle schoolers and high schoolers and staff, all with complex stories of joys and grief, of trauma and pain, of dreams and hopes of bright futures. I will look them all in the eye and say to them,
“Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I will then rub my thumb into some ash, mixed with a little oil, and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. The ash is burned up palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday, the start of Passion week, the week that starts with Jesus being heralded as king and Messiah and ends with him being murdered and crucified.
We all together will then walk around awkwardly today with messy foreheads with smudges that resemble a cross. As we move through lent we know that Good Friday is coming eventually. The reality of the cross lies before us still. But as lent marches forward, so do we, with faces like flint, refusing to be put to shame. We can do so because we dare to believe in a particular miracle that makes all this talk of death and ashes and finitude not be the end of the discussion.
I love the lenten season in the midwest because the proclamation of this miracle starts out somewhat hidden, but slowly as the days go on we get glimpses of its reality. The foolishness of our belief becomes sight. Flowers push through the soil. Buds begin to form on the trees. Our lawns change from shades of brown to shades of green. The stale winter air begins to turn warm and fragrant. The sounds of baby birds chirp from the trees. The sky rumbles with storms, refreshing the soil and our souls.
And forty some days from today we will wake up, after spending a season living with the reminder that we are merely dust, we will wake up to announce that we believe that we are not merely children of Adam, walking-dust beings. We are also children of the second Adam, who was made of dust, born of a woman like all of us, but who shows us that we are also dust-beings who are filled with the breath of God, the Spirit of life.
Resurrection is the fulcrum point in the Christian faith. Without it, Christianity makes no sense. There are plenty of powerful truths and beliefs within the Christian faith, but without the resurrection, the entire faith crumbles in on itself.
For those of us who have lost loved ones, for those of us fearful of death for those close to us or even for ourselves — the bold hope we have in the midst of it, the confidence we move forward in, comes from our brazen faith in the resurrection.
We remain patient in the meantime. There’s a wilderness out there we must face – whether for forty years or forty days, we remain firm in our belief of what has been promised us. The journey is not easy, and we will be tempted to give up hope countless times. But we believe anyway.
It is foolish to believe in that which cannot be proven. But it’s in this confounding foolishness that we find life.
Have a blessed Ash Wednesday and lenten season, friends. Today is not the end of the story.