With these words and with the sign of a cross of ashes imposed on our foreheads, we begin our annual Lenten journey. Those ashes, made from the palm branches we waved as we sang hosannas in celebration of Christ's Triumphal Entry last Palm Sunday, are a sign of the tentativeness of our praises and the shortness of our lives in the grand scheme of things. They mark the beginning of a season of reflection upon the impact we will leave in a universe that can and will go on without us.
Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne expanded my own thinking about those ashes and our place in this universe in his book Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity. He writes, "Every atom of carbon inside our bodies was once a star. We are all made from the ashes of dead stars." Then, he goes on to explain how special our universe is. "Only a cosmos at least as big as ours could endure for the fifteen billion years necessary for evolving carbon-based life. You need ten billion years for the first-generation stars to make the carbon, then about five billion years for evolution to yield beings of our sort of complexity."
Woven into the complexity of our life is the "invincible divine purpose for good" and "the faithfulness of God who will not allow anything good to be lost." The death and resurrection of Christ bear witness to that truth and constitute the "seed event" of the new creation. From that "seed" springs forth fruit in the lives of those who follow him.
So, when you receive those ashes, marked on your forehead in the sign of the cross of Christ, receive with them the invitation to examine your life, seek what is good, and discard whatever interferes with the fruitfulness and goodness you may contribute during your brief sojourn. Many people resolve to practice a Lenten discipline beginning on Ash Wednesday. Some give up something through the practice of fasting. Others take on something, such as additional daily prayers, Bible study, more frequent attendance at corporate worship.
If you are considering a Lenten discipline, perhaps these words of wisdom from the early Christian mystic St. John Chrysostom will be helpful to you: "No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great." Pope Francis echoes those words in his Lenten message when he writes, "Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience."
So, whatever you give up or take on, let's ask ourselves if the practice will benefit others in some way and if it will help liberate us from indifference to our neighbors, especially those in need.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. (BCP)
I'll see you in Church!
The Very Reverend Ronald D. Pogue
Saint John’s Cathedral