We do not need to be reminded of death this year—on this Ash Wednesday. It seems like death is all we have had for 2 years—951,000 dead in our own country, almost 6 million deaths worldwide. The news reports more deaths than normal to suicide, drug overdoses, car accidents; there is more anxiety, more teens suffering from depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues, and if all that was not enough, we now have an unprovoked invasion into Ukraine resulting in more the loss of life. We feel like the Apostle Paul in 2nd Corinthians in his catalog of calamities where he describes what he has gone through as great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and so on…..haven’t we come close like never before, understanding what Paul meant?
No, we do not need to be reminded of death this year; yet here we are—Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Death. Our mortality.
Paul did not need a reminder either—he suffered every day for his faith, for spreading the good news about Jesus and his power over death, his resurrection from grave, and the light of his forgiveness for Paul—a murderer, and persecutor of the church. What an unfathomable forgiveness Jesus had given him. And here is Paul, after all he had gone through to share Jesus’ love, trying to prove his credentials and credibility as an Apostles to the Corinthians –We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
At the end of the day, Paul concluded he had nothing—nothing to show them, nothing to prove that he should have their respect or attention. He was not worthy of forgiveness, nor to preach Christ any more than anyone else. All he could say was through all the suffering he endured, he continued to believe in Christ’s victory over death, and he continued to share this truth. Being a pharisee, a well-educated, a high-ranking Jew, earned him nothing—it spared him no suffering—–from beatings, storms, shipwrecks or plagues, the only thing he had to show for his faith at the end of it all was Christ.
He was powerless. His community did not even affirm him—having nothing, and yet possessing everything—only Christ. When everything was stripped away—his status, his respect, possessions, his health, and even nearly his relationship with the Corinthian community, all he could do was cling to Christ—that is humility, that is the right place of the creature next to the Creator, the follower behind his Lord, the sinner beside the Savior. Powerless with only the gift of faith. Having nothing, and yet possessing everything. Paul realized all he had was Christ; Paul realized all he needed was Christ.
You are dust and to dust you shall return. We have gone through a great endurance, afflictions, hardships, pandemic, racial strife, inflation, political division, war—we are powerless over so much of it. Does our education, or income or our politics save us? No. When it’s all stripped away—possessions, respect, status, relationships, health, wealth—what do you have? All we have is Christ.
When in suffering, the only thing we can cling to is Christ—that is our humble stance, the right place of a creature next to the Creator, the follower behind her Lord, the sinner beside the Savior. Powerless with only gift of faith. Having nothing, and yet possessing everything. All we have is Christ; All we need is Christ. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
We begin Lent with mortality and death to remember that when all the dressing, degrees, and details of our life are gone, all we have is Christ. And Christ is truly the only thing we need. We discover this only through suffering, when our control and management fail us. It puts in sharp relief what really matters—what is really important and what is not. What is essential to life and what is not.
The suffering of pandemic times and all its attendant crises offer us this gift of clarity that Ash Wednesday and Lent puts again into sharp relief: all we have is Christ. We have all heard the phrase, “you can’t take it with you” when you die, whatever “it” is. The only thing you can take with you from this life is Christ—Christ is all that matters, having nothing, yet possessing everything.
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. The only thing with you in the ashes and dust through to the other side is Christ. Knowing this, now, therefore, how are you going to live? Not just for Lent, but with Christ as the most important gift and possession you have?
Isaiah invites us to ensure that people around us experience justice and love and the basic needs of life. Matthew tells us that the practices of our faith are never done for show or for accolades or credit—because we are nothing without Christ. So, pray from the heart out of what Christ has done for you. Give from the heart because Christ has given you all you need. Forgive others because Christ embraces and forgives you in all of your flaws and brokenness. Authentic spiritual practices and acts of justice flow from the life and heart of the one who to whom Christ matters most—to the one who has nothing, yet possesses everything in Christ.
Ash Wednesday strips us down to ashes and dust alone, not as a morbid reminder of death, but as a complete washing in love, so we can see the only true need of our life is Christ. His love is the only thing we can take with us beyond the grave. Lent asks us to live with Christ as our most valued possession—having nothing yet possessing everything.