Ash Wednesday: Life, Death, and Lent

By the Rev. Justin Clemente

Have you ever had an unpleasant memory settle into your mind as you lay half-awake in the middle of the night? Or how about just as you’re waking up in the morning? It’s weird, isn’t it? It happened to me yesterday morning. As I woke up, I thought back to summer vacation 2005. Brooke and I had just moved to Hagerstown, MD and we went to the Outer Banks with her Dad and other family. At the beach one day, I got the bright idea to try to swim out and fish from one of the sand bars (because that’s what you do when you’re from southwest Florida). As I got out to where the sand bar should have been, I realized the water was still over my head. I had been moved well off the sand bar. Yeah – I was in a rip current. I was already tired, but had to turn around to swim back to shore. It felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. To this day, I still don’t know why I didn’t just drop the fishing pole – that would have helped! Obviously, I eventually made it back to shore, but for a moment, I FELT as if I would drown and die right there. It was that feeling that came back to me yesterday morning, like a cold shower. Lent is like that.

Some of us in this church came to love Lent long ago. Others are still warming up to the idea. No matter where you find yourself tonight, I want use this time to remind you that Lent, to be what it’s supposed to be, has to be about nothing less than life and death. It’s not about giving up sweets – though we may do that. It’s not about giving up meat on Fridays – though we should fast as the Lord directs. It’s about life and death – spiritual life and spiritual death. To make it about anything less is to drastically trivialize Lent and miss its power and place in the Christian life.

And I know I’m not being extremely exegetical here but that’s what all of the passages we read this evening do in one way or another – they bring us back to our spiritual bankruptcy, they put us before a holy God, and they get us to a place where we’re supposed to respond and say, “Yes, Lord, I’m a sinner under a death sentence and I need your grace!” Lent is for one thing and one thing only: that by the time this season is over, you’ve learned to get the eyes of your heart fixed on the cross of Christ as your only hope in life and death. Why? Because it’s impossible to hear and rejoice in the news of the Resurrection until you’ve come to see that.

As I got up out of bed yesterday and continued to think about how I had idiotically and embarrassingly almost drowned 11 years ago at the Outer Banks, I found that what followed on that was a profound sense of gratitude. A heightened awareness that I was alive by the sheer grace of God. Lent is like that.

Tonight we say “remember that your are dust, and to dust you shall return” not simply to be morbid, but to find out anew what God can do with even the dust of the Earth. Amen.