Ash Wednesday (this year, March 5th) is the first day of the season of Lent. In liturgical churches, it begins with a vivid reminder of death. As the words "Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return" are said, Christians are marked on their foreheads with ashes in the shape of the cross. The words echo language from the funeral liturgy, "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust."
Death is one of the primary themes of Lent. Each of us will die. None of us gets out of here alive. A friend told me that he thinks Ash Wednesday is the most honest service of the church year. My wife has talked about the difference between Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. During the former, we indulge, party, cavort and sometimes even wear masks. At the latter, we take our masks off as we are reminded of - indeed confronted with - the fact that we are dust.
A second primary theme of Lent is repentance, commonly understood to mean repenting of our sins. The reality of death and the need for repentance go hand-in-hand for many Christians, especially those who believe in a post-death judgment and separation into heaven or hell or purgatory. None of us knows when we will die. Could even happen later today. Or tomorrow. Or maybe not for many years. We don't know. Thus it is wise, prudent and necessary to repent. Death and post-mortem judgment might be near.
The themes of death and repentance and their linkage are powerful forces in the collective Christian psyche. They have been for a long time. Imagine the many centuries in which our spiritual ancestors took it for granted that heaven and hell (and perhaps purgatory) were real. That at death we would go to heaven or be condemned to punishment, eternal or time-limited (purgatory). Imagine what death and the imperative to repent would have meant. They were ominous, threatening, fearful. It's important to be right with God when we die - for we risk divine and maybe eternal punishment.
I grew up with that understanding, even as I did not grow up in a hellfire and brimstone church. The threat of hell was not emphasized. But it was clear to me that Christianity was about going to heaven - and thus avoiding the alternative of postmortem divine punishment.
Death and repentance as themes of Ash Wednesday and Lent now mean something very different to me. I no longer think that the heart of Christianity is about our eternal fate in heaven or hell (or purgatory). And I do not think that repentance is primarily about contrition for our sins and the resolve to be good, or at least better, so that our postmortem state might be better.
Yet I also affirm that the themes of death and repentance are central to Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and Christianity. But they are not about where we will spend eternity but about our lives here and now. And if some want to say, "Why is that an either-or? How about a both-and?" I am willing to say, "Fine - so long as we don't ignore the here and now."
Ash Wednesday, Lent. Holy Week and Christianity itself are about following Jesus on the path that leads through death to resurrection. They are about dying and rising with Christ. We are to follow him to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection. That is what the journey of Lent is about.
That journey intrinsically involves repentance. But repentance is not primarily about feeling guilty about our sins, or about doing penance (think of the common practice of "giving up" something during Lent - whether meat or chocolate or alcohol or shopping, and so forth). The biblical meanings of repenting are primarily twofold. On the one hand, it means to "return" to God, to "reconnect" with God. On the other hand, it means "to go beyond the mind that we have" - minds shaped by our socialization and enculturation.
The result: dying to an old way of seeing and being and living and identity, and being born, raised, into a new way of seeing and being and living and identity. Ash Wednesday, as we are marked for death, is the annual ritual enactment of the beginning of that journey.