Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. On "Fat Tuesday," or Shrove Tuesday, we (at least symbolically!) use up all the rich foods in our houses to ready ourselves for a time of fasting and preparation. On Ash Wednesday, we are invited "in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; . . ." (BCP, p. 265)
The Ash Wednesday liturgy is powerful, and can be quite moving even under normal circumstances. But for those who have been faced with some kind of life-changing experience, a life-threatening illness or accident, the Ash Wednesday service can be startling. Watching the priest mark the sign of the cross with ashes, especially on a baby's forehead, can be disturbing, even shocking. "You are dust and to dust you shall return." It can be a little too close to one's own experiences and fears for comfort. And it can be far too close to the truth when the priest makes the sign of the cross on our own foreheads and speaks those words.
But Ash Wednesday, of course, is not about comfort. Some people think it is too negative and they stay away from church that day -- too maudlin, too self-absorbed, too depressing. Who wants to walk around with a smudge of ashes on their forehead? And who wants to think about death, anyway? And then there's Lent -- again, too negative, too depressing, too serious, too much of a focus on sin. Why can't we just be positive, people ask. Why can't we just talk about the good things, the happy things? Why all this focus on sin and negativity? Why can't we just go straight to Easter?
Most people who've had some life experience under their belts realize that the human experience is full of risk and full of trade-offs; that life is full of good and bad, happy and sad. They know that the good things don't come without some cost, without some sacrifice at times, without at least some hard work. And they understand that life and death are part of the cycle of our human existence.
In Matthew's Gospel for today, Jesus tells his listeners not to get caught up in trivial pursuits, but to focus on the important things, on right relationship with God. The prophet Isaiah declares, "Is this not the fast I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . " In the Gospel, Jesus goes on to say that, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." These are all ways of telling us to pay attention.
Ash Wednesday and the liturgy of this day, can evoke for us reminders of the things that are important. But it is not an easy message -- it reminds us that we must be focused, that we must make choices, that we really can't go through life on automatic pilot. The message will be heard repeatedly during Lent, through the scripture stories we read, and through the liturgies of Holy Week, as we walk again that last week with Jesus-that last week of grueling choices.
In our culture, we still have a strong tendency to deny death, even while our media and entertainment are full of images of violence and death. But we don't want to think about the reality of it, we don't want to talk about it, we don't want to acknowledge it. However, as most traditions tell us -- including our own -- we miss something deep, and rich, and important when we try to ignore the fact that we will die. The Buddhist tradition teaches that we should live each day as if it were our last. This is an admittedly difficult practice, but it teaches us where our priorities are -- where our treasure is. That's one thing that those facing life-threatening illnesses learn the hard way -- once you have stood on the brink, things never look the same again. What is important in your life becomes a little clearer -- it's easier to brush aside the trivial things that consume the precious time you have left, however little or much time that might be.
Living in the present moment is an ancient Christian practice, one common to many faith and wisdom traditions. This is the point of today's Gospel -- to know where our treasure is, to understand what is important. It is the awareness of the gift of life, the gift of time, the gift of love. There is no time to waste, and Ash Wednesday reminds us of this. It is a day that calls us back to our human-ness, our mortality, our finiteness. It reminds us of how important it is to know where our treasure is, where our hearts are. Often when we read this Gospel, when we hear this verse about treasure, we tend to think of it as money and possessions. But treasure is also time and people and our lives and our relationship with God -- and not only this precious life we have now, but also what we anticipate in the life to come.
Ash Wednesday tells us to not take a moment of this time for granted -- to live and love to the fullest, to treasure this precious world, to treasure those we love and those who love us, to treat this precious earth and these precious people with tenderness and respect. As the old saying goes, the past is gone, and the future has not yet come to pass -- this present moment is all we have. This moment. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent tell us to pay attention to the present moment. And to realize that it can all be gone in a heartbeat. It can all be gone in the time it takes to trace the sign of the cross on a child's forehead.