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, you 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.
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 Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church