Some of us entered the front door of Lent last night, getting the mark of ashes on our heads or hands, in the form of a cross. Because the church had not saved the palms from the year before, I did not have to figure out how to burn the palms and make my own ashes. While that would be a meaningful exercise, I was grateful I had a very tiny ziplock, labeled ‘ashes for 100 people.’ I had a hard time believing that the small amount of ashes inside would work for that many people but, I think they were right. After I marked thirty-five people with the sign of the cross, I put the rest of the ashes back into the envelope the best I could. The ashes go a long way.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We faced our mortality.
A few years ago, the San Antonio newspaper, the Light, said that Ash Wednesday was the highest church attendance of the year in that city, higher than Christmas or Easter. Many people began their day with getting the sign of the ashes on their foreheads. Why would this be so important to people?
Yesterday morning, in one church, people got the ashy sign of the cross on their foreheads, but cleaned it off on the way out to their jobs. Perhaps they were taking seriously Jesus’ injunction to not show their piety in public. Some want the mark to show, others do not.
Again, in my head today, I hear Longfellow in the words of his poem, A Psalm of Life:
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;–
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of our human frailty and the limits of our life on earth. Lent is a time of reflection on life and its meaning – and hope. Even though the cadences and rhyming pattern seem to mark Longfellow’s poem with his age, and even though some of the terms seem overly earnest in this day when we know that the way to reach people is through humor, these words stay with me.
Perhaps you have words that stay with you today.
Welcome to Lent.