Your Best Friend Today

By Russell J. Levenson Jr.

We begin again the season of Lent: a time to devote ourselves more intently, more thoughtfully, through prayer, reflection, fasting, meditation, worship, focusing on the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

How best to start this day? The companion we are given on this first day of Lent is an ashen cross on our foreheads, offered with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The prayer we offer before this ancient and sacred tradition in our church begins like this: “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.”

I do not think any of us really want to ponder and meditate on our mortality this much, if at all. For some of us, the daily growth of aches and pains is almost like a constant reminder, a ticking clock telling us that we have less time on earth than we did only a moment before.

But thinking on our mortality is not a bad thing, and in fact it can inspire us to hold precious this day, to treat each moment with more care and gratitude. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” asks Emily, a young woman in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

In the play, Emily dies in childbirth, but is granted a unique experience: the stage manager allows her to return from death and live one day of her life with her family.

Although Emily has high hopes for that one day, she is disappointed. Just before she returns to her place in the cemetery, she cries in frustration to the stage manager: “We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. … Do any human beings realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

Prayerfully reflecting on our mortality offers us the opportunity to not just slow down, but soak in all of life.

I once saw a brief one-woman play, The Golden Egg. It began with a little girl who is frustrated with a situation at school, and she wishes that she could go on to the next grade. An old mystic appears and gives her a golden egg with a small piece of string hanging out. The mystic tells the little girl that any time she runs into a painful, uncomfortable situation — or even a situation she did not like — she could pull on the string and time will fly.

In no time, the little girl snatched out a section of string and found herself in the next grade! But thereafter, faster and faster was too much of a temptation. Every time she ran into something she did not like, she yanked on that string, and sometimes she pulled too hard. Not wanting to wait for her wedding, she gave it a yank, but then missed the honeymoon. And when the labor pains came, another yank, but then she missed the first smile and step. When her husband became ill, she could not take it and pulled that string, but when the time passed, she missed his death and was just standing at his grave. When she finally realizes what she has done, she tries to back up. She tries to stick the string back into the egg, but she can’t. Time really did fly.

No, let these ashes remind you this day of your mortality, of the precious gift of life, and all of its moments — the good, the bad, the painful, and pleasure-filled — and everything in between.

We also ask God to use these ashes to remind us of our penitence. Penitence is keeping in mind who we are: sinners in desperate need of the redemption of God almighty. Today is a day to allow these ashes to be a kind of mark, a tattoo if you will, that we wear to hold before us our deep need of God in Christ.

This is not a bad thing, either. It is good to know when we need a doctor. A fever, a cough, an ache in the stomach, is a sign that something is amiss in the body; and when we have those symptoms, we go to the doctor. We seek health, healing. These ashes today are our symptom that we need the great physician. We need what only Christ can offer — not just forgiveness, but absolution — removal of sin.

My mentor John Claypool used to say that there is no use denying our sin. He said trying to deal with our sin by evasion is like gathering the termites you have in your basement and carrying them up the stairs and setting them loose in your den. It is one way of dealing with the problem, but an entirely ineffective way.

So the ashes remind us this day that we have a place to take our sin. Those things done, things left undone — things that embarrass us when they play themselves out before others, and shame us when we know they are known to God and me alone. We all have them. Not one of us is “without sin,” as the apostle Paul writes to the Romans.

And yet these ashes give us the opportunity to set things right, not by doing something to balance the scales, but instead by taking them to the only One who can wipe them away, who can “forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” as the apostle John says.

The end of the prayer over the ashes will ask God to help us “remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

These ashes remind us of our mortality, and with that the gift of life. They remind us of our sins, and with that God’s wonderful forgiveness. But they also remind us that there is something much more to life and death, to sin and forgiveness, than just getting through Lent, or even getting through the day. It is about making us into heavenly creatures, by his grace and mercy; it is about taking stock when it comes to our relationship with God.

The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson Jr. is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.

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