This year Ash Wednesday falls on March 1. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the liturgical season of Lent and lasts for 40 days, culminating with Easter Sunday. The number 40 comes from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke referring to the number of days Jesus stayed in the wilderness being tempted by Satan after his baptism by John the Baptist. Often times, Ash Wednesday begins a time when people “give up something” (to correspond with the fasting Jesus did while in the desert) or, in some cases, “take on something”. These are called Lenten disciplines.
What’s interesting about Ash Wednesday is it’s connection back to our mortality, and thinking about death. When ashes are imposed on the foreheads of others, the words that accompany it are “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
For me, those words are a stark reminder of how short life is, and how important it is to tell the ones I love how I feel about them before it’s too late. That’s the same advice I give to hospice patients and their families when they ask me when the right time is to express their feelings. The truth is, none of us know when death might come, so why waste time waiting for what feels like “the right time.”
And so, while it might seem morbid to think that “we are dust” and “to dust we shall return,” understanding where these words came from provides some context. After Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, God says those words to them. In the same way, on Ash Wednesday, we remember that humans are inherently sinful and in need of forgiveness. When it comes to hospice, sometimes we need to forgive others or even forgive ourselves. Ash Wednesday reminds of that, because without sin there can be no forgiveness. And without death, there can be no Easter.
And so, as we enter into Lent, use these 40 days to reflect on the things that need to be done. Maybe it is to forgive? Or to love? Or try harder? Or be better? Whatever it is, whether you give something up or take something on, remember that at the end of these 40 days comes Easter. And with Easter comes great joy (even if we failed in our Lenten discipline). For that is when we finally get to say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!” And when we say that, the same is true for you, too. You are risen to new life in Christ! Your sins are forgiven and death is no more. Alleluia! Christ is risen!