Lent 1Ash Wednesday

The Egyptian Pharaohs were concerned with their immortality. To insure safe passage into the afterlife, they built huge pyramids, which housed their mummified bodies at death. When death came, these mummies were buried in tombs along with food, valuable jewels, and immaculately designed masks and ornamentation, which they thought would assist them in the afterlife.

Modern man has considered such efforts to achieve passage from one life to the next the misguided hopes of an ancient civilization. However, the Pharaohs’ quest for immortality has not been abandoned. Our methods are simply more sophisticated. For many people in the modern world, the quest for immortality has little to do with living again in another world.

The primary twenty-first century way to immortality is to make sure our heroes and sometimes our villains are never forgotten. People of fame have become the Pharaohs of our society: sports stars, millionaires, those with political clout, national heroes, and movie celebrities, to name a few.

Will the Beatles ever be forgotten? Won’t all future generations see the film clips of Jesse Owens demoralizing Adolf Hitler and his idea of a superior race during the 1936 Olympics? Will the world ever forget the likes of John F. Kennedy or movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis? Is there an American who has not seen footage of Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon? These people will never be forgotten, nor should they be. For many, this is the meaning of immortality, to never be forgotten.

Some of us may be fortunate enough to have fifteen minutes of fame, a phrase coined by artist Andy Warhol. But only a small number will be remembered forever. Thus, for many, lasting memory among the masses has become the ticket to immortality.

To have one’s life and accomplishments recorded through the lens of a camera, to have one’s life catalogued in a hall of fame, or to have one’s work displayed in a museum—these are the pyramids of the twenty-first century.

Even those who espouse evil can achieve a twisted celebrity status that spans generations. Hasn’t the name “Jesse James” survived more than a century? Won’t people forever remember John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald? The promise to never be forgotten seemed to drive the insanity of Timothy McVeigh. Some people are driven by the thought of living forever in infamy.

Like the ancient Egyptians, we believe that as long as a few make it to immortal status, albeit an earthly one, then life will have been worth living. Like the workers who built the great pyramids, we are developing a culture that seeks to make some people into gods. We pay our homage to them and help feed the false belief that what matters is that centuries from now people will be talking about some of us.

Only a few of us will be remembered in books or in film, have buildings named after us, or be known for some great heroic deed or discovery. As important as such contributions may be to modern society, none of this changes the fact that the grave awaits us all. In the end, the grave is the great equalizer. The grave is a chilling reminder that regardless of how much one is adored, appreciated, loved, or even worshiped, death comes to everyone. When death comes, what will be of ultimate importance isn’t whether we are remembered by people, but that the Creator of the universe remembers us. Will our name be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life? For if it is not, we die not only once, but twice. This is the vision the Apostle John saw and wrote about in the Book of The Revelation: “The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14-15).

A man dying on a cross on a hill in Jerusalem two thousand years ago found the key to eternal living just hours before he died. Turning to a holy man who was being crucified beside him, he said, “‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:42-43). It’s not likely that we will accomplish anything in life that will cause our names to be remembered beyond a generation or two. But that kind of immortality shouldn’t be of concern to us anyway. What should be important to us is whether Jesus remembers us and allows us to be present with Him in paradise.

So the pondering of our mortality is important because we must face the fact that beyond this life we will either live forever with Christ or we will be forever separated from Christ. It’s highly unlikely that we will live forever with Christ if we have never pondered our mortality. For if we never think about dying, then how can we ever think about living eternally with Christ?

To put it another way, a sure way to find ourselves in the worst kind of wilderness is to never ponder the thought of one. Being separated from Christ is the worst kind of wilderness a person can ever be in. If a person is separated from Christ at death, that wilderness experience will last for an eternity.

Today is Ash Wednesday. This is a day on which Christians ponder our mortality. We encourage all people to focus on words like these found in James: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). When we take inventory of our lives, we can reevaluate our priorities. We can ask ourselves whether we are placing emphasis on the most important things. If not, we can make midcourse corrections. If little things are claiming the most important spots, we can make changes, lest we find ourselves wandering in a wilderness.

At an Ash Wednesday service, a minister takes some ashes, places them on a person’s forehead, makes the sign of the cross and says something like, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ” (Genesis 3:19 and Mark 1:15).

Most people feel a little bit uncomfortable walking around with an ashy cross on their foreheads. It’s a bit humbling actually. Those who experience this service in the morning go through the entire day, not just thinking about their ashy forehead, but about the deeper meaning, that they should repent of any sin that is present in their lives. It’s also a reminder that sin is ultimately what causes death and makes all of us return to dust.

It is our sin that creates some wilderness experiences in our lives: dead places where joy, love, peace, and hope dry up and wither away. Through repentance we can put the wilderness in perspective. Through repentance, the wilderness can bloom and come to life. During this first day of Lent, we prepare for God to come afresh in our lives. We prepare for God’s victory over death in the Easter event, which gives us the great hope that we too will one day receive that same victory. On that day, death will once and for all be defeated, when the dead in Christ shall rise.

Until then, the sign of an ashy cross is a reminder that although death will come to us, we don’t have to live in a wilderness of fear or despair. Death doesn’t have the last word!

While we may be forgotten by future generations, it won’t matter because we have the same promise given to the thief on the cross who asked Jesus to remember him. Just as Jesus promised that sinner a place with Him in paradise, Jesus extends that same promise to all who place their faith in Him.

Prayer God of Life,

We are nothing but dust. We are soil. We are worm food. In Your overwhelming grace, You gave us life and instructed us to take care of the world and everything in it. We confess, Lord, that we waste Your gift and do not fulfill our calling. Instead, we use our time clinging to pride, feigning self-sufficiency, and worshiping celebrity.

On this day we stand at the edge of Your wilderness. You call us to leave behind the sins that have covered up our need for You. You call us to face the reality of death. You call us to journey through Your wildness, to learn and grow in Your ways, ways which don’t make sense to this world. You call us to come before You as our true selves, ashamed and terrified of being forgotten.

As we wear these ashes today, may this death mark remind us of our need for You, God of Life. Without You we would have no breath. Without You we have no hope for life. Give us strength to take our first steps in this wilderness journey, though they seem difficult and strange. Guide us through this barren land of sin and shame toward Your glorious Garden of Life. Amen.

This post is a sample meditation from "Finding Our Way Through the Wilderness: A Journey for Lent or Other Days of Spiritual Reflection and Prayer" by John Michael Helms and Erica Cooper. Get the ebook here.

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