Feb. 26, 2009 — This past Wednesday in many Christian traditions was Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent, a 40-day period (not counting Sundays) of repentance and prayer that ends in the victorious climax of Easter Sunday. Some churches ignore, avoid or even oppose the liturgical church calendar because it is not mentioned in the New Testament. However, a person would be hard pressed to object to the traditional themes and details those special days incorporate — words and actions that are solidly biblical and spiritually strengthening as well, when celebrated with faith resting on Jesus Christ and undergirded by the atonement he has accomplished once for all.
The Episcopal liturgy for Ash Wednesday is typical of others, in which those assembled pray: “Almighty God, You have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.” The minister (or other officiant) then makes with ashes a small cross on each person’s forehead while saying: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The deed and the declarations harmonize, with each other and also with basic biblical truths. Truths that many Christians, bewitched by the death-denying mentality of our thoroughly-secular culture, avoid and even obscure. According to the Bible, death is not our friend but our enemy — an enemy which Jesus came dying to destroy. Resurrection, not death, is the believer’s doorway into immortality. And Scripture, for the most part, pictures all believers experiencing resurrection together at Jesus’ final appearing, not going through the process one by one at the moments of their individual deaths. A few isolated verses might suggest otherwise, but 1 Corinthians 15 is the most detailed chapter on this topic and it portrays what I have said above.
I had planned to attend noon services on Ash Wednesday this year to receive a physical reminder of my mortality as added motivation for personal godliness and good works. Instead, I got a tailor-made reminder and motivation in the form of a 16-hour episode of atrial fibrillation. God graciously reset my heart to proper rhythm without the need of medical intervention, for which I am grateful. Many of us live with”A-Fib,” including a number of you, and I don’t want to make too much of my experience. I will say that it reminded me that life is both brief and fragile. It definitely did that, and I didn’t even have to wash my forehead afterward.