Precisely because we are, during this season, preparing ourselves, and some among us, to live out the vows of the baptismal covenant more faithfully.
And baptism is about death first.
As Paul reminds us in Romans 6:4-5: in baptism we are co-buried with Christ into a death like his, that we may be raised with him in a Resurrection like his. We die — to sin, and to the power of death as a power over us. Easter Season is the time for focusing on life in the Risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. During Lent, we learn or learn more deeply what it means to “die to self and chiefly live by [God’s] most holy Word” (Claudia Hernaman, “Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days,” UM Hymnal, 269, verse 3).
Death to self is the journey of discipleship. To become a disciple of someone, as Jesus understood it and as rabbis in some branches of Judaism still practice it, is to submit oneself to learning everything about how the teacher lives. It is to put aside one’s own inherited patterns of life to learn those of another. From the earliest days, Lent was the final and most intense leg in a three-year journey of discipling, an opportunity for those who had become hearers of the Word (catechumens) to become doers also.
But we do not become doers of the Word, we do not become disciples of Jesus, without first dying to self. Jesus himself said this. Whoever wants to be his disciple must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. To deny ourselves is to die to ourselves.
So Lent begins with all of us together, disciples with decades of experience and those just now coming to the way of Jesus, enacting exactly what it takes for us to take this journey of discipleship. We acknowledge how overrun by sin our lives still are. And we take on the ashes as a sign of our mortality and sinfulness. We all begin this journey on that level playing field. We acknowledge we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
That is why these two actions—embracing our mortality and acknowledging and turning from our sin—are the heart of this service. They are the most appropriate ritual beginning for our personal and corporate disciplines of discipling and growing in discipleship, in death to self, throughout this season.
I look forward to beginning our Lenten journey together on Ash Wednesday at 6:30pm. Hope to see you there.