Yesterday, I went to the dentist for the first time in years. My lapse in going first started when I moved to a new city. Finding a new dentist wasn’t at the top of my priority list, and honestly, it slipped my mind.
I went on with life without out giving it any thought until, eventually, it dawned on me that it had been a good while since I’d had my teeth cleaned. Upon recollection, the thought of going was unwelcomed; the dentist seemed to me a really inconvenient thing. Though I knew I needed to go, I continued putting it off.
Eventually, my obstinance became embarrassment over how long it had been since I’d gone, and I feared humiliation, as well as what I might find out about my teeth. I became worried that my extended hiatus from the dentist would likely translate into lots of issues with my teeth, and with it, lots of dollars out of my bank account!
So I decided that ignorance was bliss. I would rather not know what was wrong with my teeth and just carry on with life as if all was fine. How foolish!
I bet that I’m not the only one who’s ever thought this way. My guess is that for some of you, even though your health insurance provides for an annual physical exam, you haven’t had one in years. You’d just as soon not know if you have any major health issues because it allows you to go on with life as usual.
However, pretending that nothing is wrong doesn’t make your issues go away; they’re there whether you acknowledge them or not. You can’t bury your head in the sand and actually make the outside world disappear, even though it seems that way. Ignoring truth and choosing to live in a fantasy doesn't alter reality.
A prime example of the way we try to do this is demonstrated in how most of us go about our lives suppressing the fact that one day we will die. We are mortals, and the mortality rate for homo sapiens is 100%. Every single one of us will be laid in a coffin.
We’d like to believe that we are invincible; that we are the exception to the rule. Deep down we know that death is an inescapable reality; yet we live our lives ignoring this inconvenient truth. We busy our lives with work and amusements to keep us distracted from the fact that one day we will return to the dust.
This is one reason why I have recently begun to see the beauty of the liturgical calendar.
The church calendar is designed to orient our lives around ultimate reality; namely, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And as we follow Jesus’s life throughout the year, there are annual reminders about what it means to be a follower of Jesus living in a broken, sinful world.
One of those reminders is that, like Jesus, we are human, which means that we will die. And there is a day on the calendar specifically to help us with this called Ash Wednesday. It is a day to acknowledge our mortality.
Scripture says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90: 12). Considering our mortality leads to wisdom, because when we recognize that we have a limited number of days, we will also live to make the most of each one of them.
James 4:14 reminds us that life is like a mist that quickly vanishes. It’s here and then it’s gone. You came from the dust, and to the dust you shall return. So, in the words of pastor John Piper, “Don’t waste your life.”
We need Ash Wednesday. We need to be forced to look our frailty square in the eyes and acknowledge it. We need to contemplate that we are sinners in need of a Savior; that we are mortals in need of a grave-conqueror.
Ash Wednesday ushers us into a season of fasting and seeking the Lord (Lent) in light of our impending date with death. It initiates a six week journey of pursuing God that culminates in Holy Week, where we fix our attention on the passion of Jesus.
It is here we finally celebrate (Easter), because through Jesus’ suffering we gain deliverance. By his death and through his resurrection, our sin has been paid for and our enemy, Death, has been defeated.
So next Wednesday, as we remember our mortality, we do so with sobriety, but also with hope. We can acknowledge death; we don’t have to avoid it like I did the dentist’s office for so long, because it doesn’t have ultimate power over us.
Death is certain, but so is resurrection.
And by looking it in the eye, death becomes a powerful tool to help us leverage every waking moment we are given to make the most of each gift-wrapped day.