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I shouldn’t think anyone much likes to hear the words “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”  They immediately remind us of funerals, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes”. Those of us who attend the Ash Wednesday liturgy are far from ready to contemplate mortality. We don’t really mind thinking of immortality, in a general sense, or as talk about the place where deceased loved ones now live. We don’t want to contemplate our own deaths.
One of the great changes which have occurred over the past century is a shift away from facing the reality of death. Our ancestors were surrounded by its evidence. Modern science has made remarkable progress in dealing with all manner of illnesses, some simple, some severe, which were once usually terminal. We’ve even sanitized funerals, replacing black or purple with white, mournful music with Easter hymns. And perhaps much of that is to the good. Jesus has conquered death. It is not the enemy.
So it’s odd that having embraced a belief in joy, we still avoid thinking about our transition. Why remind us of the ‘old enemy’ on Ash Wednesday?
In Lent we follow Jesus as he battles with death in many forms. His enemies represent a deathly form of cynicism and self-righteousness, a dreadful combination. His mission draws Jesus closer and closer to a violent end. Last Sunday we saw Jesus with two prophets white and gleaming at the Transfiguration. On Good Friday we will again gaze at Jesus in the company of two others, nailed to crosses, while a storm rages. He was condemned to be executed by the agents of all that is deathly.
Lent presents us with two choices. We can side with death, with our own treasured or excused sins, or own cloak of self-righteousness, our willingness to enjoy seeing others killed by gossiping tongues or malicious actions. Our virtue will take us nowhere near that green hill far away. Or, and here is the irony, we can drop all pretence to virtue, and fearfully walk with Jesus to what seems to be death, violent and cruel, but through which is real life in all its blazing light and beauty. We make the choice on Ash Wednesday…at least for this year.