I’m not a huge fan of heights. Typically, I’m not paralyzed by it. But every once in a while I find myself in a place where I’m pretty high up, and I know if I hit the railing just right (or wrong!), I could find myself free-falling. Just the thought of it elevates my pulse, and my palms start to get clammy. If you’ve ever had a near-death experience, you also know this feeling. It almost takes your breath away, and time slows down as the reality of what just happened sinks in.
The reason why these moments shake us up so much is because they remind us of a fact we desperately try to ignore: We are not in control. We plan out our calendars, schedule our bill-pay, set ten-year goals, and aim for the future. But as much as we try, we are not in control. We don’t determine the outcome of our lives. And when we come face to face with death, whether it’s our own or the loss of a loved one, we’re forced to deal with this difficult reality.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. Maybe you’ve observed this day before, receiving the sign of the cross on your forehead. Or, maybe Ash Wednesday is a foreign concept for you. Maybe you look around each year and wonder why people would ever willingly agree to have ashes smeared on their face. For all of us, it’s good to take a step back and remember what today is really about.
Ash Wednesday is a near-death experience. It’s a moment where we press pause on our packed-full calendars and stifling daily routines, and remember the simple fact that we constantly avoid: We are not in control.
In the Anglican church, when someone receives ashes on their forehead in the sign of the cross, they hear these words spoken aloud: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” A friend of mine who serves as a priest in Florida puts it more bluntly: “Remember, you are going to die.” These are difficult and sobering words to hear.
It may not seem pleasant to think this way, in fact it may seem downright morbid. But the message of Ash Wednesday is true whether we admit it or not. We don’t control our lives, and the more we can come to grips with it, the more we can learn to rest in the current of God’s providence.
Yes, today we declare that we are all going to die. But while we do, we also declare that death is not the end. Because Jesus has defeated death itself, we don’t need to fear. We don’t need to waste our waking moments trying to control the outcome of our lives. We can lay down the oppressive burden of trying to dodge our mortality and hide our weaknesses. Instead, we can die to ourselves and allow the life of Jesus to live through us. We can be people who are comfortable in our own skin, no matter how fragile that skin may be.
So today, however you celebrate Ash Wednesday, spend a moment remembering that you are not in control. And thank God for it.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Reflect: What part of your life do you most wish you could control?
Read: Take a moment and read through Psalm 51. As you do, ask God to help you surrender your need for control.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.