The burial service reminds us that we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Today is the first day of Lent. Today is the annual remembrance of our mortality. Today we participate in the act of giving and receiving the imposition of ashes. Today we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
A few years ago I read an article about Lent in which the author, a priest, was talking about the Lenten tradition of giving something up. He said he didn't much care for the somewhat newer practice of taking something on. Let me rephrase that – he didn't much care for the somewhat newer practice of taking something on as a replacement to giving something up.
His overall point was that, in order to be a follower of Jesus, we need to deny ourselves. We need to relearn that we are not the center of our various universes. By denying ourselves, by our acts of sacrifices, by fasting from our desires and our ability to engage in instant gratification, we learn. We learn self-control. We learn that having unfulfilled desires really won't kill us. And, if we are paying attention, we can learn what it might be like for those who must go without on a regular basis.
I'm also reminded of a conversation I had around the idea of a living theology. Theology is often seen as a mental exercise; after all, theology means the study of God. People write theological books and attend schools of theology. But theology is much more than studying God and writing papers. Theology must be lived.
The first part of a living theology, I think, is our Prayer Book. This book takes the study of God to a deeper level. It takes words that were written in the study of God and places them in the cycle of our lives – morning to evening, catechumenate to communicant, birth to death. Episcopalians aren't kidding when we say, “If you want to know what we believe, come worship with us.” This book is the first step in moving theology from our head to our heart.
And one author I read wrote that he has begun to see faith not as belief in holy acts – the imposition of ashes, anointing with oil, baptism, Communion and the like – but that faith is the practice of participating in those acts. It is through our faithful practice and participation in these things that hallow them and make us holy. This is a living faith and a living theology.
Today marks the beginning of our Lenten journey. In the beginning, God formed humankind from the dust of the ground. Our Lenten journey will end on Holy Saturday with Jesus in the tomb. For so did God ordain, we are dust and to dust we shall return.
This ancient ritual of imposing ashes can help us see our own mortality in the face of those around us, and it has the power to create a sacred bond. The ancient ritual of Communion can help us see those around us as people hungry, as we are, for life-giving sustenance. Thoughts on God and human life led to the creation of these rituals, and these rituals led to a living theology. Lent is a living theological experience that moves us through life, sacrifice, and death.
This Lent, give something up. Give it up to learn patience and restraint. Give it up in solidarity with those who have none. Give it up to deny yourself and follow Christ. Give it up and look.
Look for how the words and actions of our worship shape your daily life. Look to see how your active participation makes these acts holy. And look to see how you are transformed.
If we pay attention, we just might notice that we have quit thinking about God and have begun living with God.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. How do you live out your theology?