Lent is upon us – the solemn season of fasting and prayer which leads up to our commemoration of the great Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and promise of return in Holy Week. It’s a season of sackcloth and ashes, where we bury the “Alleluia” and recall our own brokenness and faithlessness.
For many, Lent is uncomfortable. As humans, we like to think that we’re perfect, or, if not perfect, that we’re basically good people. That our sins are small and unimportant, and that we’re “really not all that bad.” Lent breaks down that delusion. It reminds us that we’re dust. It reminds us that we’re “like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” (Ps. 90:5-6). It reminds us that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Rom. 3:10-12). It reminds us that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8). Lent, summed up, reminds us of what and who we are, and what and who God is. We are naught but dust, and to dust we shall return.
These are not hollow words, or an empty title, but a deep understanding of who we are. They’re an acknowledgment that in our natural state you and I are irreparably dead and broken. Left to our own devices, you and I can do no good, only evil, for which our punishment is death (Rom. 6:23). We sometimes think that there are times in our life where we don’t sin, forgetting that sin is not an action, but a condition. We are sin. From the moment we’re conceived, apart from the grace of God, every thought, word, deed, and action we perform is sin. As we confess every Sunday, we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition – we are dead in our trespasses. We are naught but dust, and to dust we shall return.
Luther once wrote that the psalms are Christianity in miniature, and Lent can also be well summed up within three psalms: Psalm 51, Psalm 78, and Psalm 90. I would encourage each of you to read and re-read these psalms during Lent. You don’t have to pray all three every day, but I’d encourage you to turn to them regularly throughout the next few weeks.
None of those three Psalms should be comfortable on our lips. They should remind us of who and what we are (Ps. 90), of what we have done and who we have done it against (Ps. 51), and of what happens to people who continue and delight in faithlessness, grumbling, gossip, and sin (Ps. 78). Above all, they should encourage us to turn to God and repent, and to cry out with St. Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).
Lent is not intended to crush us underfoot. It’s not intended to cast us off. It’s not here to show us our brokenness and our sin and then leave us without hope. No, Lent is a reminder and a course correction.
“We are dust, and to dust we shall return,” we cry to God. “We are sinners, broken and humbled.”
And in grace, we are reminded: “Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.” (Ps. 113:7-8)
“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” (Micah 7:18-20)
In your own natural state, according to your old Adam and Eve, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. And yet, in baptism, your sins have been forgiven, washed away, and you have been made a new creation.
This Lent I encourage you to earnestly repent, but repent with the knowledge that your sins have been paid for, and that Christ is gracious and ready to forgive.
It's hard to truly appreciate how far we've been lifted up, without an understanding of where we started.