Lutherans love Lent. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but it has been my experience that when compared and contrasted to Christians of other stripes and flavors, those in the tribe of the Great Reformer seem to have an odd affinity for the season of reflection preceding Easter. Perhaps it’s because we appreciate having a chance to simplify our lives for 40 days and to focus singularly focus on God’s redemptive work. Maybe we like convincing ourselves that making superficial sacrifices reflects well on our personal spirituality. Maybe we’re just sadists that enjoy self-flagellation and denial. Whatever the case, it does seem to be true that Lutherans do embrace this season in a way that most others do not.
I was reminded of this fact as I attended the Ash Wednesday service at my church. Attendance for the evening service was good—maybe not as high as it had been on Sunday morning, but still significant, including a number of families with small children. It was actually one of those very rare instances where I was attending alone—Beth had decided that it would probably a bit of a push to get all of the kids fed and to the church on time, but granted me a special dispensation to attend, knowing my weird affinity for having ashes placed on my forehead. Still, I found myself sitting in the back of the sanctuary with the other families with small children out of sheer habit.
As the service began, I was struck by what seemed to be a significant number of older attendees. Seated a few rows in front of me were three matriarchs of the church. One had a walker leaning precariously against the side of the pew, and the two other ladies weren’t exactly prime examples of mobility. Yet when the call came for the imposition of ashes, all three dutifully got to their feet and struggled to the altar to receive a black smudge of a cross on their forehead and to hear the words, “Remember thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
I’ll admit that the first thing to cross my mind as I watched these women walk down the aisle was to wonder why they would be at this service in the first place. Surely the thought of their personal mortality had long since moved from the realm of the ideological or philosophical to the tangible. Why would they want to be reminded so starkly that life was short and that death was inevitable?
Returning to my seat, I noticed another group of fellow penitents—specifically, those with young children. It’s one thing to see adults with an ashen cross on their brow, but yet another to see an infant bearing the mark of Adam. No one likes to think about death, but to think about the mortality of those with so much life left to be lived (presumably) puts a particularly fine point on it.
Death is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you own, or what status you hold; it doesn’t matter if you are intelligent or not; if you have the heart of a lion or are the greatest of cowards. With One notable exception, death is batting 1.000, and there’s no indication that that is going to change any time soon.
As I contemplated on this, it dawned on me that this was precisely the reason these people were here. We all know death is coming. Perhaps were unsure of when, but its arrival is sure. The ashes were a reminder of this, but also something much more profound.
The fact that the imposition is done in the shape of a cross is not insignificant. It reminds us that even as we face death, we don’t have to face it alone. The God we worship is one who has walked that valley Himself, and who ultimately came out on the other end. And because of this, there is hope that death need not—does not—have the final word.
For the elderly, who see death approaching with rapid certainty, the dirty cross is a symbol of hope. It reminds the bearer that God joins them in the journey, and promises that, though perishable, they will rise imperishable. For the young (and those who are raising them), it is a reminder not to put trust in that which will ultimately rust and decay (including our very selves), but to look beyond our own mortality and to put trust in the One who can save both body and soul.
Leaving the service in silence, I found myself thinking deeply on both the reminder of the shortness of life, as well as of the promise of what lies beyond. Perhaps this is why Lutherans have such a deep appreciation for Lent. It’s not so much a morbid fascination with death as it is a restructuring of priorities in light of eternity. Such a reflection is not dark. Rather, it is in this darkness that the Light shines most brightly. Even as we return to dust, there is a promise that something lies beyond.
I stopped for gas on my way home, the cross clearly visible on my forehead. “Lemme guess,” said the attendant on duty, smoking a cigarette disturbingly close to large tanks of petroleum, “Roman Catholic?” I identified myself as a Lutheran, but said that both Catholics and Protestants were observing Ash Wednesday. “Oh yeah,” he responded. He gave me a brief rundown of his own spiritual journey—from a childhood marked by a dogmatic religiosity to an adulthood of exploring different faiths and beliefs.
“You can learn a lot about God in different ways,” he proclaimed. I agreed, and told him that if he ever wanted to find out more about God, he was more than welcome to join us at our church just down the road. “Thanks. Maybe I will,” he responded.
I hope one day to see this gentleman at church. Perhaps while he is there, he will hear the message of hope hidden in ashes, and will see beyond the temporal and grasp on the eternal. Maybe next year, he will bear the same mark on his brow, and will have a chance to explain to someone else why his forehead looks dirty.