Yesterday, the season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday. Lent is the 40-day season prior to Easter when Christians are encouraged to examine our lives and repent. Repent simply means “to turn,” so during Lent we consider how we might turn away from that which separates us from God and turn toward that which draws us closer to God.
In the scriptures, ashes are a traditional symbol of repentance. In the book of Daniel, for example, Daniel says he turns to God “with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession …” Job tells God that he repents in “dust and ashes.” Therefore, on Ash Wednesday, we impose ashes on our foreheads as a reminder of our need to repent. As the ashes are imposed, pastors will often say the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” quoting from the book of Genesis. For me, this is not only a humbling reminder of our humanity and our mortality, but also a reminder of how precious each and every day of my life really is.
Early yesterday morning, one of my pastor friends posted a story on Facebook about imposing ashes on a very young parishioner. As she said the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the child’s mom leaned over and whispered, “But not for a long time, okay, buddy?” The mother in me can certainly understand that sentiment! It is one thing to be reminded about my own mortality, but may my child still have many, many more years ahead of him!
It was with that touching story in my head that several hours later I read the news of yet another school shooting – this time in Florida. Seventeen people, many of them children, shot dead by someone holding an AR-15 assault rifle. Seventeen families who will no longer be able to lean over to their loved ones and whisper, “But not for a long time, okay, buddy?” Seventeen families who came face to face with mortality much, much sooner than they should have.
I could not help but notice that one of the pictures which circulated following the shooting showed a distraught woman with ashes on her forehead in the shape of a cross. She had most likely attended an Ash Wednesday service earlier that day. She had most likely spent some time considering how she will repent this Lenten season. She most likely spent some time reflecting on the fact that at some point she will return to dust. She certainly was not thinking that she would be mourning the death of seventeen people in her community later in the day. She should never have to think that. None of us should ever have to think that.
May we as a community and as a nation be moved by that cross of ash on her forehead. May we repent. May we turn away from that which separates us from God – turn away from the guns that have caused so much unnecessary death. As the Rev. James Moos wrote shortly after yesterday’s shootings, “Responsibility for these ongoing, senseless attacks rests not only with the shooters, but also with a society that refuses to repent from its idolatrous attachment to guns and gives virtually unlimited access to weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties.”
This Lenten season, the idea of repentance has taken on a new urgency for me. The time for repentance is now. May it be so.