Today on this Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, we will receive a cross-shaped smudge on our forehead. The ashen sign helps us remember who we are and from where we come. We are of the earth, created by a loving God who breathed life into our bodies so we may be a symbol of life and love in the world. It is also a sign that reminds us that we are mortal. That the moments of this life are finite and that someday we all will return to the earth from which we came. And so, we are to pay attention, to spend our moments wisely, to practice being alive in the present, and to spend time in quiet reflection so as not to miss the awe or fail to be grateful for, as the poet Mary Oliver says “this one wild and precious life” that we have received as blessing.
The cross of ashes also reminds us of how we are connected with each other. Every living being is part of God’s creation. Each of us unique and special, contributing our own richness into the world, offering what only we can offer as a part of this beautiful tapestry of life.
And also, we are alike. We have hearts that beat to send our blood coursing through our bodies, we have minds that allow us to move our bodies, that learn and ask questions, looking at the world each day with new curiosity. We all need clean air for our lungs and nutritious food and safe water to make our bodies go. We need to be touched to live. We desire to be secure and loved and free. And we have a profound hope that all we love will be able to live in a world at peace. All of us are mortal. All of us will someday return to the earth.
I came to Ash Wednesday in my adult years so the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” fell hard on my ears. They had not become words of love and comfort. They sounded harsh and final.
When I was serving a church in Washington DC and young children would come forward with their families, rather than the familiar words we will hear today I said to them as I placed an ash cross on their foreheads, “Remember that God made you and God loves you.” This has become how I hear and experience the words “Remember you are dust (God created you good) and to dust you shall return (“even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia”) So I love that through the randomness of the calendar, today we celebrate Ash Wednesday and also remember all the Valentines—all those we love and have loved in our life. This day is truly about the greatest love, that we are given this glorious life and we are invited into the fullness of God.
In this time of Lent, we often ask a series of questions. How should I walk through this season? What should I read or study or give up or take on? These are good questions, but Jesus invites us into something deeper. He asks us what we treasure. Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. Jesus knows that how we spend our moments is how we spend our lives.
What we treasure is what we give ourselves to, how we spend our time, what occupies our thoughts and our energies. Our treasure is a good map for the direction of our lives. Paying attention to what we treasure may be a good question to ask in this time of Lent.
Some treasure is of lasting and eternal value. Some treasure enriches and grows life. Some treasure encourages us to live fully in the present moment. And some treasure needs to be let go of, regardless of how much we think we love or need it. Some treasure accumulated, guarded, and piled up layer upon layer can insulate us and dull us to the presence of God, our neighbors, and the world—actually prohibiting us from the glorious freedom God intends.
The scripture for this day invites us to reflect on what we give our time, our energy, our devotion to. The prophet, the psalmist, the apostle, and Jesus all urge us to pay attention to how we live, how we pray, where what we treasure opens for us this day. We are asked to see what draws us closer to God, to ourselves, and to each other and what causes separation.
Where are you as we cross into the season of Lent? What is the state of your heart? What has taken up residence there over the past weeks, months, years? Are there habits, ways of being, that are keeping you from a deeper connection with God and with others? Are there concerns and worries that cut you off from experiencing God’s healing love? Are your “to do lists” keeping you from seeing the delight of this very moment–which is always with us and is the perfect teacher. What gives you life and how is God preparing you to notice and be aware in this season?
The gospel for Ash Wednesday tells us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also.
This time of Lent is one of beginning. We start again today, knowing that how we spend our time and energy and what fills our hearts and minds shows what we truly value. May this time of Lent be a time of reflecting on our true treasure—opening our hearts to God who created us and walks with us each moment so that we may become a part of the beauty, the courage, the hope that is present in the world. As we are marked as God’s own by a cross made of ash, may we listen for our true treasure, may we enter into God’s goodness and dream for us all, beginning this day, beginning right now.