Do you have a ‘bucket’ list? I don’t, but an awareness of the fact that I am going to die one day came nearer last week, when Sr Violet’s funeral took place the day before Ash Wednesday. The words often used at a funeral (ashes to ashes, dust to dust) were brought to mind at the Eucharist on the Wednesday, when we had the imposition of ashes, where the Priest puts a cross of ashes on our foreheads to mark the beginning of Lent. A remembrance that we are dust, to dust we shall return, a call that we should turn away from sin and follow Christ. To mark the beginning of Lent this way is to commit ourselves to this season of prayer and penitence, of preparation for Holy Week and Easter; to commit ourselves anew to following our God.
To start Lent with an awareness of our own mortality can actually be quite helpful; our following of God should be based on the fact that God is God, and we are not, something it is easy to forget, but that facing our own deaths can remind us of quite forcibly. It could also, I think, remind us that we are part of this world; that we are part of the earth, and indeed after our deaths will return to the earth. That however much we divorce ourselves from creation, that however much we pretend we are not part of the animal kingdom (we are, after all, mammals), that however much we see ourselves as ‘better’ than the rest of the planet, we are part of it, we are made from the same stuff as it – that’s why we can live on it! The problem with religion is that it can so often lead to an emphasis on ‘are you going to heaven when you die?’ that we think of ourselves as mainly spiritual beings, and forget our own physicality, however often we might be reminded of it.
But we are physical beings; we are part of creation, not set apart from it; the physical ceremony of ashing can be a reminder of that, a reminder that our faith should be rooted in the everyday, in our own physicality, our own mortality, as much as it should in the spiritual. That’s not to say that we are not spiritual beings: it is both/and not either/or – and, I suspect, our spiritual lives work much better if we are in tune with our physical lives. It is also true that to be aware of the fact that we shall die one day can be helpful, if only to encourage humility. What we do, how we live is temporary; there will be those who come after us who will build on our foundations, or tear apart what we have done and re-work it for a different age; that what we are and what we do are not for our own grandeur but for God’s glory.
Maybe that’s a good place to start Lent: how much of what we do is for God’s glory and how much for our own grandeur? Are we seeking to build lasting temples to ourselves, or are we seeking to glorify God? The answer may well be a bit of both; the other prime reminder that should come with our own part in our planet is the fact that we get things wrong, we make mistakes, we are sinners. That we seek to glorify God, but end up glorifying ourselves. To continue into Lent, it is so easy to see this as a negative season, to see God as standing in judgement over our many wrongdoings, condemning us, and Lent is the time when we try to persuade God that we are worthy of love after all – look at how much I gave up! Yet that would be to miss the point: we don’t have to persuade God to forgive us, for God is there, full of mercy and compassion, longing to forgive us, just waiting for us to turn and start on the road home, when, as in the parable of the prodigal son, we will be looking at our feet saying ‘Lord, have mercy on me’ and we will find God encompassing us in a huge hug and yelling that the party starts.
Lent is, can be, a part of that turning towards home: even if we are lifelong followers along the way, there will always be a need for turning. Lent can be a time when we try to see what comes between us and the love of God, to let it go, and allow God’s overwhelming, compassionate love to fill us more fully, and to flow from us to others. We will not know how well we do this; we are not meant to know, for it is not us, but God. That sense of our own mortality can persuade us that we need to open our lives to God fully NOW, not in ten years’ time; it can persuade us that our following of Jesus should be rooted in the here and now, in the practical problems of our time, as much as in our own spirituality. We are physical beings and however much our deaths may lead us to a closer union with God, right now we can only access God’s love as part of creation; for God’s love is not some airy-fairy love, but a real physical love; for Jesus needed to die, to rise again, to bring us to new life, new love.