I imposed ashes yesterday morning at sunrise in the church parking lot, and it was cold. The temperature was 28 degrees Fahrenheit but felt like 23, so I wore a dark felt fedora, black ski gloves, doctoral robe over a sweater, topped off with a purple satin stole. I resembled a cross between Dragnet and Sister Act. It was billed as ‘drive through ashes’, the most appealing aspect of it being that the recipient may remain in her or his heated vehicle, if she or he chooses to do so. Whether seated in comfort or standing in the elements, the result is the same–each is challenged to take Lent seriously and themselves even more so. An ashen cross imposed on the forehead reminds that from dust we have come and to dust we will return, repent and believe the Gospel.
I left the parking lot and moved to Oakwood Cemetery off La Salle Avenue, where I officiated the graveside service of the mother of a friend from college. I have delivered more funeral messages than I care to count over the past thirty five years, but this time I experienced a first. The sons requested that the casket be lowered with family and friends present, and that each be given the opportunity of shoveling dirt into the hole. Cemetery workers went about their task with as much dignity as they could muster, but the ratcheting sound was unnerving. When casket was six feet under the surface, the widower dumped the first shovel full of dirt. The sound of dirt striking a metal coffin echoed in the hole, and although I never knew the deceased I became emotional and fought back tears. From ashes on foreheads to dirt on a casket, the finality of it all struck something deep.
Every believer is called to die, but we shouldn’t wait until we’re six feet under to experience it. The old divines called it mortification of the flesh; Scripture calls it being crucified with Christ. Lent is both a blessed and awful time of seeing ourselves in the reflection of the Cross. We see him as he is, and see ourselves for who we are–wretched, pitiable, miserable sinners undeserving of mercy in any degree. Before anything rises, it must first fall; we will never understand Easter until we first cling to the Cross.