Today is an amazing day in Colorado, at least here on the Front Range. It's sunny, clear and 64 degrees out. 64 degrees! The record-breaking snows we've had this winter are all but melted and it's delightful to finally see the ground beneath the snow. To provide you with some context: starting right before Christmas, we had snow for five weeks straight. Piles and piles of snow. Snow that didn't melt. Snow that was more akin to Minneapolis than Boulder. And we had cold. Record cold. Minus 15 cold. Cold that wouldn't go away. Cold more like Fargo than Denver. So, for us, this thaw is amazing.
But what is interesting to me as a California transplant is that we must hold loosely to warmer weather in Colorado winters. Indeed, later this week, the weather forecasters say we could have more snow, possibly 3-6 inches of it. What this sets up in me is this "won't get fooled again" feeling which robs me of joy in celebrating today's warm weather. I am tempted to hunker down, to brace myself for the onslaught of another hit of winter. I am beckoned out of the enjoyment of the present and into a dread of the future.
Driving home from noon's Ash Wednesday service, I discussed this with my wife. I realized that this is a metaphor for hope. We live in winter on earth, most the time. The winter of suffering, sin, and death. The winter of injustice, poverty, environmental pollution, war, and famine. There are many glimpses of spring around us (in the good things we enjoy), but for the most part, we live in winter. The issue for people of faith is to recognize several things. First, the big picture: winter isn't permanent. Spring will come--and that's what the resurrection of Jesus Christ declares. And once we're in this Spring, there will never be another winter.
But we still live here and now and so we're reminded of another truth: we need to hold in tension three things: 1) the reality of the good gifts we enjoy (these warm days, temporary though they be) along with, 2) the reality of winter's harshness; and 3) the eternal springtime to come. To focus only on one or two is to miss the big picture and grow either naive and foolish or cynical and hopeless. The challenge is to hold onto all of these truths and to live faithfully in the moment. Sometimes that means popping on the bike for a rare winter ride in the fleeting warm weather. Sometimes that means breaking out the snowshoes and embracing the beauty (if not the hardship) of a fresh Colorado snowstorm. Sometimes that means just waiting and hoping: Spring will come and, even now, with sharp eyes you can see it.
"Hey, you've got something on your forehead. Let me get that for you." Trying to be helpful, I made this remark to a Catholic friend in my pre-Christian days. I saw the sooty blotch and assumed it was an accident, a cosmetic oversight. My friend informed me it was the sign of the cross, made by a priest on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Thus began my education on this ancient Christian holiday.
In the 25 years since, Ash Wednesday has become my second favorite Christian holiday (for those so inclined, you may guess my favorite day in the Christian year. Surprise: it's not Easter!). Ash Wednesday doesn't get much press in Protestantism, even among Presbyterians. It's a quiet, but profound, start to Lent, that 40 day period for contrition, contemplation, humility, and spiritual aspiration. Lent, and its kickoff, Ash Wednesday, invite us to recognize and learn from our deep brokenness before God.
Ash Wednesday commemorates the biblical reality that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). Dirt is our inevitable destiny (whether through cremation or decomposition), unless...unless, something or Someone intervenes. Made for eternal relationship with the living God, we rebelled and abused our freedom, choosing to worship self rather than God. Rudely self-plucked from the rich soil of God's life, we fade and wither, we dry up and die. Without a dramatic rescue, a turnabout, some surprise change in spiritual reality, this is our destiny: dust, ash, death. Unless...
Ash Wednesday uses the burnt palm fronds of the past year's Palm Sunday to mark us with the cross--a mark of tragedy and triumph. The cross signifies that there is indeed an "unless"--God has intervened to rescue us from the cycle of death and decomposition. As we pastors mark worshipers, we say, "You are dust and to dust you shall return...but thanks be to God for the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
I am moved each year at the end of the service as I look out upon the congregation, all marked with ash in the sign of the cross. We share a solidarity in frailty. The ground is level: we stand shoulder to shoulder, needy and dependent, and yet affirming our common hope that Christ will bring life out of death and that dust need not be our destiny. Made for life, to life we go!