Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, which, in many Christian traditions, marks the beginning of Lent. When attending a service on Ash Wednesday, the priest or preacher typically marks the foreheads of their congregation with a cross outlined in black ash. So doing, he utters: “From dust thou came & to dust you shall return” as a reminder that as mortals, our time in the flesh is temporary. Which is why, as churchgoers, we should always strive to maintain a focus on what is eternal. I am posting my reflection a day late, which I think is oddly appropriate. The lesson I took away from my latest Ash Wednesday is the message that whatever it is we need to do, whatever destiny we are meant to achieve–we don’t have forever to do it. The clock is ticking–right now. In my case, I wrote my response a day late & the worse that will happen to me is no one will read it. But when we delay on subjects with eternal implications, the consequences are more dire.
I want to share a modern day parable. I know a man who is consumed with what my preacher would deem “concerns of this world.” He buys one expensive car after another; throws one lavish party after another; orders the most expensive item on the menu at fine restaurants & then desert even when he’s not hungry but because it’s there. This man is also obsessed with image. “Don’t I look young for my age? I’m in better health than this person who is younger than I am, aren’t I?” And, “I went on a vacation nicer than my friends did” or “my television has a brighter picture than neighbor’s does.” Assertions such as these continuously collide in his mind liker bumper cars at a carnival as he attempts to live his live like it’s a carnival—or amusement park. “That ride was fun! What’s next?” The man can’t stand still for a moment; always running to something. But maybe he’s running from something?
If you visit his home, you’ll discover that it’s never quiet. He will have the radio blasting in one room with the television in the other simultaneously–day & night. It’s as if he finds refuge in all the noise. As if he is afraid to spend even a moment in the silence because he doesn’t want to listen to some inconvenient truth hidden within it.
For those of you unfamiliar, Lent is a time of fasting. In most general terms, fasting is a deliberate refrain from food for a set period of time. Why, you may ask? Well, I’ve received several different answers through the years. But last night, I got an explanation that made the most sense.
We fast because, like the man in the parable, we are constantly surrounded by noise; noise as in the concerns of this world. We spend our time feeding one carnal demand after another–our hunger, our egos, our bank accounts. There is nothing expressly evil with many of the things that drive our actions daily; but when we live for those things & those things alone, we lose sight of what’s eternal. And the simple act of denying ourselves food just temporarily serves to cut out some of the noise. It takes away our distractions; prevents us from taking even the simplest blessing for granted.
Last night, my preacher summed it up in stating, “Fasting takes us away from earthly things. Sometimes, our bellies become our God!” We get caught up in the “squeaky wheel” paradigm. We’re in such a rush to silence the first sign of a complaint, even within ourselves, that we fail to recognize the deeper challenge. Fasting makes us more opened to looking deeper.
Think back to the man in my own modern day parable—the man who seems to take refuge in the chaos. He seems to be hiding from a problem that he is unwillingly to face. But can there really be refuge for any of us once the clock runs out & we have left tasks undone; destinies unfulfilled? Fasting aside, can spending some time in quiet reflection reveal to us a path that would have been blocked by our daily tasks otherwise? Are we distracting ourselves from an inconvenient truth in an attempt to avoid doing what’s right? Like the man in the parable, have we allowed the temporary & sometimes trivial accomplishments of this world to overshadow our outlook on what’s eternal? Whatever it is we are called to do on this earth, we don’t have forever to do it. But we will forever to live with the consequences either way. That’s what struck me the most about this Ash Wednesday’s service–the urgency. Maybe we should take a moment of silence now to recognize the message that we’ve been ignoring in own own lives; to heed the calling that we’ve rendered ourselves deaf to. A moment of silent now may save us from an eternity of regret later. My hope is that we all resolve the challenges of this life as soon as possible, because if we wait too long as mortals . . .
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.