Ash Wednesday is a paradox.
On one hand, it reminds us that we are from dust and that to dust we will return. It’s a day to remember and even saddle up, uncomfortably, near our own mortality, the inevitability of our demise. Ash Wednesday marks us as a people inching closer and closer to the grave each and every second of our seemingly nondescript lives.
On the other hand, Ash Wednesday is charged with life and vitality in ways only made possible when recognizing that death is imminent. Yes, it reminds us that we are from dust and to dust we will return. But a greater truth resounds in its midst – that God breathed into us once and he will breathe into us again. Ash Wednesday marks us as a people inching closer and closer to resurrection each and every second of our precursory lives.
There’s a story in the Bible, found in John 11, that’s both disturbing and beautiful.
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. - John 11:1-6 [NIV]
Jesus’ friend Lazarus, whom he loves, is sick and dying. His sisters Mary and Martha send word to Jesus, asking him to come and do what only he can do – nip death in the bud and heal Lazarus. Time is of the essence. Jesus responds, “This sickness will not end in death” and then proceeds to stay put for two more days, letting Lazarus die. Later, he tells his disciples, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
Last summer I stood in front of friends and strangers at the memorial service of a dear friend. She was a newlywed wife in her mid 20′s when cancer took her from us far too soon. I was angry. And there were many in the room far angrier than me. This sickness did end in death. The cynic in me asked, “Jesus, did you stay away an extra two days? Were you glad you weren’t here? Why didn’t you bring the healing we prayed so hard for? WAIT…WHAT???”
Death has a disturbing way of making us honest. We get angry. We get frustrated. We get scared. We want a moment to pause and incredulously ask, “WAIT…WHAT???” But the story doesn’t end there for Lazarus. John 11:17-44 brings the story to its beautiful conclusion. Jesus brings Lazarus back to life.
They say that John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible. But I think it’s packed with a bottomless depth of meaning, richness, and most importantly, hope.
He wept. He mourned with Mary and Martha and the rest. He felt their loss. He experienced their pain. He gripped his own humanity and made his home there for a moment.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that He does the same with us today. The touch of finger to forehead, the swift top to bottom, left to right of the ash becoming a cross, the words that speak of our impending doom – these all remind us that Jesus wept, Jesus mourned, Jesus hurt, Jesus was human. And only when we face the grit and grime of this reality can we look death in the face for what it truly is – a moment, a blip, an aberration. Because something else is around the corner. Light is breaking in through the cracks of the stone covering the tomb. Lazarus isn’t dead. And neither are we. Death is not a wall to stop us; it’s a door to be kicked in.
So today, Ash Wednesday, it’s OK to weep, to mourn, to feel loss and pain. It’s OK to be human. But may we remember that the story doesn’t end here. Jesus is with us, here and now, in the very middle of our fear and anxiety and doubt. But He isn’t leaving us here. He’s taking us somewhere, past death, into life. Resurrection. WAIT…HOLD ON…EASTER IS COMING.