Remember that you are dust

Fr Alec
Wednesday, March 1, 2017 - 7:00pm

Ash Wednesday 2017




Ashes are a sign of grief and mourning. For the ancients, as for us, it was important that their outward appearance matched their inner state. In the same way as we dress up in black for a funeral, the Hebrews would tear their clothes, put on sackcloth and pour ash upon their heads to show their sorrow.


Likewise, the ashes we receive today are a sign of sorrow for our sins – an outward sign of an inward repentance.


Lent, we are told, in the introduction to today’s service, is a time of penitence and fasting. A time when Christians can take to heart the call to repentance, and the promise of forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel. But what is this repentance? What is asked of us this Lent?


I remember six years ago preparing myself for deployment with the Irish Guards to Afghanistan. Alongside all the practical necessities like organising kit, getting inoculations, arranging insurance and organising things at home, I was also encouraged to do two things: I was asked to make sure that my will was up to date, and to make sure that I had given thought to my funeral.


This was sobering stuff. It gave one pause to consider the inevitable risk of the undertaking that lay ahead. It reminded me of my mortality, and led me to question what kind of life I had lived thus far.


An exercise that counsellors and Life-coaches and the like often invite people to complete is to write you own obituary.

First of all, you write a short and honest account of your life thus far, upon which you can reflect and ask yourself, ‘Is this the life I intended?’ ‘What does this story say about the kind of person that I am?’

Secondly, one is invited to continue on into the future, imagining the kind of life you could go on to lead. The gifts that have not yet been given full expression, the hopes that have not yet been realised, the relationships that have not been given sufficient time and attention. Nothing concentrates the mind like the remembrance that life is fleeting.


In little corners of mediaeval churches, one will occasionally happen upon an unexpected image of a skull, and perhaps beneath you will find  a text beneath, saying ‘Memento mori’ – Remember that you must die. Just as Roman generals returning to Rome in triumph after a great victory to parade before the rapturous crowds, would have a slave behind them to whisper ‘Remember that you are mortal’ lest they became arrogant and puffed up from all the adulation, so these are a reminder from our forebears that we will one day be as they are now.


And this is the reason we are here tonight. To contemplate, as we take on the disciplines of Lent, that we are dust, that we are material beings, and that the matter of which are composed will one day dissipate, and blow away.


I hope this doesn’t appear too morbid. That is not the intention. Quite the opposite. Lent is a season in the church that points decisively towards Easter, and the promise of resurrection, of new life in Christ, and the human flourishing that belongs with these.


It is the Resurrection of Jesus, and the promise of life that it brings with it which gives meaning and purpose to our lives. That suggests that they are journeys towards a destination, towards communion with our Creator, and not a futile flash of light in the darkness. If this is true, then how we live our lives truly matters. It reminds us that life is a precious gift which is not to be frittered away. That this life is a preparation for the resurrection joy which is yet to come.


And yet so often we defer that joy. We put off the good things until tomorrow. We fill our lives with busyness. We seek to give them meaning with physical things which are as certain to perish as we are ourselves. We distract ourselves with pleasure rather than investing in joy.


This why the Fast of Lent is such a valuable prelude to the feast of Easter. We have an opportunity to step back and ask who we really are. Where we a truly heading. To ask ourselves ‘What do I treasure in life?’ “What was I made for?’ Because where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.


We are invited into a deep repentance, a fresh consideration of where our life is directed, a journey in which we turn our backs on everything that held us back or dragged us down, that limited the full expression of God’s love in our lives, and head out into new territory along the path of healing and reconciliation and abundance of life.