Quinquagesima Sunday is the Sunday, which ushers in Lent, which starts on the Wednesday of the week, commonly called the Ash Wednesday. Many people usually flock the churches on Ash Wednesday to have ashes imposed on their foreheads in cruciform with the words that have been used for hundreds of years: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return” – a translation from the medieval Latin Mass (Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris). The words re-echo God’s declaration to man in Genesis 3:19 – “…For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” The Lent, which we are starting this week with this sacramental and symbolism, touches us on a fundamental level, by taking us back to the beginning and then forward to redemption. The ashes to be imposed on the foreheads, as the sign of the Cross, speaks to us of both humility and exaltation, of death and new life. The ashes signify our mortality, inner fragility and poverty, while the cross indicates our salvation in the mercy of God.
As we begin the Lent, we are, therefore, put in proper perspective of whom we are, so that we set our priorities right. Many of us are full of ourselves and often wantonly boast, sometimes, asking: “Do you know who I am?” We are reminded of the answer to such a question, in case we have forgotten – simple and straight: “We are but dust.” The remembrance that we are but dust is a reminder of how we are created – merely formed of the dust and only became a living being by the breath from God (Gen. 2:7). This simply means that, if and when the breath from God leaves, whatever remains is but dust and goes back to dust. This calls us to humility and utter dependence on God in Whom alone we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Both the word human and humility are derived from the Latin word, humus, meaning earth, indicating the relationship between the three. Human is made from earth and to be really human is to be humble (down to earth). It is to depend on the Lord Jesus, by the cross (imposed with the ash) of who we are exalted and enter eternal life. Lent calls us to detach ourselves from the things of this world and empty ourselves, so that we might be filled instead with God’s “breath of life” (His eternal Spirit). This world is passing and so, we should put our trust instead in the eternal, in the Lord. Rather than storing up earthly treasures, we should seek first His everlasting Kingdom (Luke 12: 16-34).
The words of Job, which the Anglican Divines took from the Roman Office of the Dead and used for the Anglican burial service, are succinct and ring bell:
MAN THAT IS BORN OF WOMAN hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we be in death: of whom may we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord, which for our sins justly art displeased. Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death. Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, shut not up thy merciful eyes to our prayers: but spare us Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from thee. (Job 11)
In a sense, there is both joy and sadness in Lent – sadness at death but joy at life, the life to come.
So, may we well begin this Holy Season of Lent, which so much reminds us of the transience of this life and, in contrast, the joys of heaven to come.
The Venerable Dr Princewill Onyinyechukwu Ireoba, FIMC, CMC. is the Rector, Ibru International Ecumenical Centre, Agbarha-Otor, Delta State.