I wrote the headline above on a Thursday morning after reading Lenten passages from the Book of Common Prayer: "Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Savior, Amen."
And this from the season's Litany of Penitence: "Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done, for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty."
As the words hung on a mostly blank page I turned to email, where more signs of ashes awaited. First, a colleague sent photos from the Feb. 26 bomb blast in Jos, Nigeria, that killed four and injured more than 50. The photos-too graphic to publish but essential to our task as journalists-were taken moments after a suicide bomber exploded his car only yards from a church where 500 worshipped. Bloody body parts lay scattered amid car wreckage. One of the dead lay naked, stripped of his clothes from the force of the blast, his dark Nigerian skin a chalky white from the dust and debris embedded by the explosion.
Then, as I was contemplating this gruesome sign of mortality, another email popped into my inbox- a short few sentences from a trustworthy reader, alerting me that our mutual friend Jeremiah Small had only hours before been shot and killed in northern Iraq.
You can read more about Jeremiah in this issue (see "A rush of life" in this issue) plus a report on the latest bombing in Nigeria, prepared even as we also awaited word of the possibly imminent hanging of pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran.
Signs of mortality are everywhere around us, yet the reality of death, of our bodies returning to dust, is so perpetually shocking that we cannot breathe, eat, think, or sleep when it comes near. In its jaws we see our blindness to human need, suffering, injustice, and cruelty.
Though Gospel writers Luke and Mark said Jesus' followers will fast in the days that Jesus is taken away, the 40 days' fasting that precedes Easter, known as Lent, was an alien tradition to me reared in the mostly Baptist South. Church historians have disagreed over its origins, whether it began in the apostolic age or later, but those who celebrate Lent aim to follow the example of Jesus, who prepared for ministry by fasting 40 days in the wilderness.
In the Scriptures "fast" has two meanings: to cling to something, or to let it go. "Hold fast to the word of life," reads Philippians 2:16. "The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day," says Jesus in Mark 2:20.
Lent is ripe season to focus on what we cling to and what we relinquish. We cling to the Word of life, and the Word Himself. We let go of-well, just about everything else.
Does this leave us called to be stylites or hilltop hermits? No. In a sermon titled "Imitating Incarnation" B.B. Warfield declared, "Christ was not led by His divine impulse out of the world, driven back into the recesses of His own soul to brood morbidly over His own needs, until to gain His own seemed worth all sacrifice to Him. He was led by His love for others into the world, to forget Himself in the needs of others, to sacrifice self once for all upon the altar of sympathy. Self-sacrifice brought Christ into the world. And self-sacrifice will lead us, His followers, not away from but into the midst of men."
The mistake we make is seeing our sacrificial choices in ascetic terms rather than exuberant ones. In Christ we live in the excess of life and joy, not the absence of them. The self-sacrifice Christ calls for, said Warfield, "means not indifference to our times and our fellows: it means absorption in them."