I grew up a Baptist … and today is a weird day.
It's Ash Wednesday. It's a day when people go to church and have ash put on their foreheads. Growing up as part of a denomination that did not typically celebrate it, I never understood what it was about. The first time one of my friends showed up at school with this marking on his head, I tried to help him wipe it off. I mean, why would someone want dirt on their face?
Now that I am in seminary, I have had a chance to learn a little bit more about this special (or weird) day on the church calendar. It's the first day of Lent — a period of time (40 days + 6 Sundays) leading up to Easter. Lent is a time of reflection and preparation. It's about getting ready to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
Why start it off by putting ash on your forehead?
Because ashes represent death and Ash Wednesday is about … well, death. It's a day to remember that we are going to die. It's about facing the fact that we will not be here forever. Life is short.
I know that sounds pretty depressing. Nobody wants to think about their own death or the shortness of their life. But there's a reason we do this.
And that reason can best be describe using Super Mario Brothers.
For anyone who's ever played a video game, something that happens when you have one life left. When you have a ton of lives, you don't focus on what you are doing. You know that if you die, it's no big deal. You run around aimlessly and press buttons carelessly. Your lack of focus leads to dumb mistakes and you never really accomplish anything. There's no discipline involved.
However, when you have one life left, you know you have to make it count. This is it. Every move matters. You focus and avoid dumb mistakes … and you hopefully accomplish something. You concentrate on making it to the next level. Unlike before, you are disciplined.
There is something about death that makes us value life. Knowing we only get one Mario makes us focus on running in the right direction and pressing the right buttons. The book of James reminds of this, saying, "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." It goes on to say that if we know what we should do, we should do it. Life is short. Make the most of it.
And that is what Lent is about. It's about discipline. It's about making changes in life to get the most out of life. It's about giving up the things we don't need and taking on the things we do need. It's about preparing ourselves for the next level. So today we start Lent … by remembering death.
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