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Receiving Life, Even as we are Perishing

I’m kind of a clutz. So, last night, when I rolled my ankle it was no surprise. I tripped on a step that has been in front of my apartment since I moved in a couple years ago.

What was surprising was the pain. It hurt. So bad. I actually thought I broke it when I felt the pain. Thankfully, besides some slight swelling and some discomfort I’m fine. But, at times like last night, we long for incorruptibility. We long for bodies that don’t deal with pain, fatigue, soreness, and corruption.

We deal with this in a more serious way at every funeral we go to. At funerals, we look death, our greatest enemy, in the face. Because we were made for immortality, looking at death angers us, scares us, and makes us long for immortality. We have a deep longing for eternal life and immortality.

That is what makes Ash Wednesday so weird.

Think about it. A bunch of people make a special trip to church on a Wednesday night to put a black mark of repentance on their forehead. They hear the words of the curse as they receive the ashes:

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

In that moment, these people express contrition for their sin. They also deal with the reality that they will die. One day, they will go back to the earth they came from. And, likely, they will be forgotten.

Yes. One day, we will die. And, after our death, the world will keep right on spinning. There will be a small number of people really bothered by it, but the world will keep turning, the tide will come in and it will go out, and everything will happen just like it did the day before when several thousand other people died.

In an awesome song, folk singer Michael Smith reminds us of that. He points out that even the richest of them all, the Egyptian Pharaohs, decay like everyone else. Addressing King Tut, he says, “Your sarcophagus is glowing but your esophagus is showing.”

Rich and poor, righteous and wicked, peasant and president all have one thing in common. They will die. The world will go on without them

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

That does seem like a really strange reason to make a special trip to church in the middle of the week.

We know it’s true though. And so much of our energy and desire to be noticed, and our tweeting and updating our Facebook status, and our attire, and our home decorating come from our desire to forget that. We want to be noticed, to stand out, and to forget, if even for a second, that the same fate awaits all of us.

There is a freedom that comes from realizing that we are just dust. And I, for one, am really grateful that the Church doesn’t lie to us about that. It doesn’t try to take away the sting of death. It tells us like it is.

Thankfully, however, that isn’t the only thing we do on Ash Wednesday. We also come together for the Lord’s Table. We receive Christ freshly. In doing this, we unite with Jesus in his death, resurrection and ascension. We receive what Ignatius of Antioch called the ‘medicine of immortality.’ We remember Christ, we pledge to walk with him, and we remember where our desire for immortality can really be met.

In short, we learn how to participate in immortality, even as we are dying. We learn how to receive the hope of imperishability, even as we are perishing. And, in so doing, we walk away from all the silly ways we try to build a name for ourselves, recognizing we are dust and we are returning to dust.

This Ash Wednesday, cast your life upon Jesus. He is the only one that can meet your true desire for immortality. And then, learn with me how to receive the hope of imperishability, even as we are perishing.

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