It is paradoxical, then, that when a Roman Emperor or General was honored with a Triumph—awarded after he had led Rome to victory over her enemies—the Emperor or General would ride in procession through the streets, dressed in regal robes with a wreath of honor held above his head, to the great accolades of the public. But just behind him would be a slave, whispering repeatedly in his ear, “Remember that you are mortal… Remember that you are mortal.”
(So now you will understand that scene in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I, where the Roman Emperor, played by Dom DeLuise, is so irritated with the servant for telling him what he doesn’t want to hear.)
Ash Wednesday comes around annually, and like that servant, tells us what we do not want to hear. It whispers to each of us: “Remember that you are mortal;” or, more precisely, in the words of our service, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—hearkening back to Genesis 2, “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7), but also hearkening back to the curse on fallen mankind in Genesis 3: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return" (Gen. 3:19).
So in the quiet of Ash Wednesday, when we reflect on many things, the first thing we need to do is to:
I. Remember our mortality
In the Burial office we pray the following words:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Now why have I just quoted the Burial Office and used the forbidden “A” word (Alleluia) in Lent? Because at the same time as we remember our mortality, we need to remember that death is not the end. We need to remember our immortality.
II. Remember our immortality. Not the immortality that only belongs to God, who is from everlasting to everlasting, but the life eternal that is the destiny of our immortal souls.
Some of you who were at Nashotah House last year will remember Dr. Jerry Root, who taught in our course on C.S. Lewis last spring. Jerry was one of the featured speakers at the Mere Anglicanism conference from which I have just returned. Drawing on the writing of C.S. Lewis, he made the point, “When a child asks you, ‘Do I have a soul?’ You should respond, ‘You ARE a soul; you HAVE a body.’” Our bodies will someday return to the dust; but we will continue to live on.
To further illustrate the point: Fr. Doug McGlynn had hip surgery a few weeks ago. In that operation, the surgeon scraped away some tissue, and cut away some bone, and replaced it with synthetic, man-made material. And, yet, Fr. McGlynn is no less Fr. McGlynn.
We all know of people who have had transplants of hearts, lungs, kidneys, and livers. Part of what was once them was disposed of as medical waste, unless it was interesting enough for a laboratory to keep and study. Yet, those individuals, with new parts taken from another human being, continue to be the same individual. We are realizing increasingly that our bodies are vehicles that carry us through life; and, like the cars we drive, how we take care of them has something to do with how long they will serve us before they begin to wear out and break down.
If you have my appetite and don’t get enough exercise, you may look like I do at age 53. If you are more careful and have good genes, you may be blessed to be as active as Bishop Parsons at 85. Most of us need to treat our bodies better than we do in what we feed them and how we exercise them.
Now let me say parenthetically that the loss of our bodies in death is only temporary. When we speak of Resurrection, we are not merely speaking of the immortality of the soul. If that were the case, we would not need Christ. Socrates and many other philosophers have believed and taught the immortality of the soul. In Christ, we are promised Resurrection, when, as the Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 15, our perishable, corruptible, mortal bodies will, after the manner of Jesus’ resurrection, be raised imperishable, incorruptible, immortal. God is not merely the God of disembodied souls and spirits. We will not, as Paul says, remain “unclothed.” We will someday have resurrection bodies that will carry our souls for all eternity.
But what about that part of us that will live on after our mortal bodies have been buried? What about our souls? How well are we feeding them? And with what are we feeding them? What kind of exercise are we giving our souls? And so, on this day when we reflect on many things, we need to remember our immorality.
III. Remember our redemption
In our Epistle lesson we read, “We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:20-21). There are many verses that encapsulate the Gospel in a few words. This is one of the most powerful and most direct. Don’t let anyone tell you the Atonement is not substitutionary; this verse clearly states otherwise.
God so cared for us in our mortal state, lost in our sins, that he gave his only Son to be the sin bearer, who took upon himself our sins so that he became sin FOR US—so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. By a marvelous exchange, he has made it possible for us to receive his righteousness and thereby to be reconciled to God. Our standing and our acceptance before God are solely in Him and are freely available to us because of the initiative of divine grace. And so, on this day, I urge us to remember our redemption.
Our lesson continues in 2 Corinthians 6: “As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain.” Has it occurred to us that it is possible to receive God’s grace in vain? Saint Paul says that it is. How could we possibly receive God’s grace in vain? What does that mean?
The key is found in what Paul has just said, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We are accounted righteous; we are made righteous positionally if we are in Christ. But how are we doing in becoming righteous? Remember that to be righteous is defined as to have God’s perspective in all things—to value what God values and to reflect God’s character in the way we live. So how are we doing?
The key is also found in the verses that follow. Paul quotes God’s words from Isaiah 49:8 when he says, “‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation.”
God has heard our cry of lostness, and in the Atonement of his Son, has found and redeemed us. So how are we doing in becoming what he died to make us? On this day when we reflect on many things, let us remember our mortality, our immortality, and finally, our redemption.
Last Sunday night I was privileged to be a part of a beautiful service of Sung Compline at Christ Church, Savannah, GA. (If you are ever in Savannah on a Sunday night, I strongly encourage you to go.) That historic church is where John Wesley and George Whitfield served as rector. And sitting in the dim light of that awesome service, I was reminded of the Great Awakening that came about through the preaching of those two great Anglican spiritual giants.
Every revival or awakening that has happened in history came about when God’s people began to confess their sins. Who can deny that our Church and our society today need such an awakening? Who can deny the we need such an Awakening? And so I invite us to begin this Ash Wednesday with the words of confession from the office for the Reconciliation of a Penitent (that I have adapted in plural form):
Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed us from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed us from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed us with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established us among your children in your kingdom. But we have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste.
Therefore, O Lord, let us confess those sins that are known to us and from these and all other sins we cannot now remember, let us turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive us again into the arms of your mercy, and restore us to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.