"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" - we say those words at every funeral, gathered around the coffin at its burial place. In days past, a mound of dirt would lie next to the open grave, waiting for the casket to be lowered into the ground when the grave-diggers would begin shoveling it back into the hole. During the committal the preacher could simply reach over, grab a handful of that soil and toss it on top of the coffin while saying the words "earth to earth, ashes to ashes..." Nowadays, however, the pile is moved out of sight and everyone leaves before the actual burying is done.
We had four funerals here at Shepherd King in February. On Sunday morning, four widows/widowers were in the congregation sitting with friends, sitting without their spouses. What a strange journey life is. When we're young our strength and energy seem boundless; the reality of death is remote, far-off. But in no time we are middle aged, losing family members and friends to death and suddenly life is tenuous; it ends abruptly. The phrase "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" becomes personal. Those who have died recently at Shepherd King were not just 'some old folks,' they were our friends, our former Sunday school teachers, people we've known and greeted for years.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. We gather for worship - young, middle aged, old - and hear the words "remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." As those words are spoken our foreheads are smeared with oily soot - a reminder that one day we will die. But the smudge is marked on us in the shape of a cross - a reminder of Jesus, crucified and risen. The ashes on our forehead are a dual sign of our mortality and our hope for everlasting life beyond the grave.
In a sense we at Shepherd King have already begun observing Ash Wednesday this year. These recent deaths have demonstrated that our time is limited. We have accompanied the dead to their burial place and heard the words "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..." We have also heard God's word of victory: death is swallowed up by Jesus' resurrected life. Already we have looked at both sides, the dying and the promised rising. As these somber days of Lent arrive, we are primed to place ourselves wholly in God's hands no matter what the future holds.
"Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Lent is a time to contemplate that truth, to ponder Jesus' death and the life that he brings. It all begins this Wednesday when we receive our ashes, face our mortality, and turn our hearts to God. Remember your mortality, remember your baptism, and step into the season of Lent.