On Ash Wednesday one year, the senior minister got sick and asked me to lead the service at the last minute. The church bulletins were printed and I could certainly preach a mini-sermon off the cuff. That was no problem. However, my colleague’s office contained no palms to be burnt or ashes to be dispensed. Thinking creatively, I instructed an usher to drive to a neighborhood drugstore to purchase some dark gray eyeshadow. He returned with this item and I removed the circular center with the gray powder in it to place with my Bible.
The service was going well, until I began to impose “the ashes” on the church members’ foreheads with the solemn words, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” The problem was the gray eyeshadow; it had sparkles in it. Each church member looked like they had been miraculously marked! A gray cross glowed on each forehead in a unique and festive display! I ended the service with a Benediction, offering no explanation. Yet, I could hear the church members discussing this odd event as they exited the church that evening.
Usually, Lent begins more solemnly. As my favorite theologian Frederick Buechner recalls, “After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.
If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
If this were your last day of your life, what would you do with it?”
Buechner writes that if we try to answer questions like these, we will know who we are, who we are becoming and what we are failing to become. It might cause us to feel depressed and change direction. At the end of it all is Easter. That means new life.
May any questions you ask yourself over the next forty days (minus Sundays) lead you into greater self-awareness. If self-awareness leads to dissatisfaction or remorse, may you seek a change of direction and make amends. And may God easter in you at the end.