Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Is it really what we do in life? Hold hands, dance around the flower and eventually fall into oblivion? It does happen to everyone equally, does it not? Qohelet, the mysterious author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, took such a view of things. No matter who we are, regardless of our fortunes in life, the fate of one is like the fate of the other, rich or poor, favored or despised, oppressor or oppressed, male or female. We know not what comes after us or what will become of our legacy, provided we are audacious enough to believe there will be such a thing. My brother recently pointed out to me that the vast majority of adults cannot come up with the names of their great grandparents. Sobering. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Today many people will submit themselves to the imposition of ashes upon their foreheads, symbolizing their recognition of both mortality and the need for repentance. We are frail flesh; we are reminded of this when we recognize that our sin makes us ill-suited for eternal life. Throughout the next six weeks—the period of time we know as Lent—Christians will be encouraged to take the hard looks at self that we’d rather not take, reflect on things that we’d rather not think about, remind ourselves of things we’d prefer to forget, and generally to come to agree with our loving God that we don’t make very good candidates for sainthood when left to our own devices. Only after this reflection, can we be prepared to really receive the promise held in waiting on Easter morning.

Confessing, literally, means speaking together with someone in agreement. When we confess our faith, we are speaking with others what it is that we believe; when we confess our sins, we are speaking in agreement with God our failure to follow what we know to be the right way and our insistence upon an alternative in its place. Repentance means we change our minds and turn around to take a new direction. It’s what lies behind the tradition of fasting for Lent, whether through abstaining from food or some activity that we perceive as having ordered our lives in ways that are harmful to self and others. It’s not the giving up that becomes somehow meritorious, offering thereby the true spiritual benefit; it’s the new ordering of life, directed more consciously toward God that provides lasting benefit.

There are many Christians for whom liturgically set dates and times for such intensely personal activities as confession and repentance do not resonate. I understand that. As Paul said, some hold one day to be special, others hold another. To observe times and seasons is not a requirement he placed on any of his young churches or upon their converts, and I’m not so sure that we should, either.  On the other hand, there is value in the reminder that the calendar brings. We’re not generally prone to slowing down enough to give confession and repentance the time they require to do their work in us. We let them go until there is something entirely too daunting in front of us, something which might have been removed before taking on such proportion as to threaten to undo us.

We all fall down. Some with a misstep, some with a stumble, and some with a thud. Perhaps the most dangerous of them is the prideful deeming of confession to be something irrelevant to us. Being reminded that even at our best we fall short of God’s glory is something we all need. We will always stand in his righteousness, not our own, even while being molded more and more closely into his image. Whether one physically receives the ashes today or not, we should all consider ourselves as called to examine our lives, our thought patterns, our assumptions, and our hopes through the next six weeks leading up to the glorious resurrection promise. I don’t really want to. Which is why I must.

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