What a difference a week can make! As I write this, we are one week out from a historic storm and its aftermath. Our community continues to recover and rebuild and will be for some time. I’m truly grateful that our family was spared significant damage, but while I hope we never see that kind of storm again I’m also hopeful that the lessons learned will remain!

Like so many of you, our family lost power to our home for the majority of last week. Frustratingly, we thought we had prepared! We had stocked up on food and water, wrapped our faucets, and had even visited the library in anticipation of a few hours or (gasp!) days without internet. The board games were dusted off and at the ready along with a puzzle and the Netflix queue. We were ready!

It wasn’t until the power went out for us very early Monday morning that we began to realize how unprepared we actually were. We had stocked up on food, but not on propane for the camping stove. We had purchased enough water for drinking, but not enough to cover all our family’s needs for an extended period. We had plenty of entertainment but had not considered how much work and energy it would take to meet our basic needs and to try to protect our home without power or water. Who had time for books or board games?!

As the temperatures began to drop in our home and neighbors began to report freezing and bursting pipes, we decided to build a fire in our fireplace to keep warm. We had enough firewood but despite a recently cleaned chimney, an open flew, and a well-tended fire the only thing we were able to accomplish was to fill our living room with smoke. It very quickly became painfully evident that we would not be able to ride this out at home on our own. We had to admit that we needed help. Mercifully, we have family close who welcomed us with warm beds and a gas fireplace for the remainder of the week.

On Wednesday, Todd and I returned home to check on any damage and pick up more clothing and food to get us through the rest of the week. As we walked around our freezing house which still smelled of smoke from our botched attempts to stay warm, I was feeling anxious and unsettled. I found myself flitting around mindlessly stuffing vast amounts of clothing and pantry items into bags as though somehow having enough socks, underwear and boxed mac and cheese could protect our family or our home.
As I struggled to shove yet another blanket into an already overstuffed bag, Todd bent over the fireplace where two days earlier we had struggled to keep our family warm. Running his finger through the ashes he put his finger to my forehead, made a cross, and spoke familiar words.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

I have received an ash cross on my forehead to mark the beginning of Lent dozens of times and each has been meaningful but standing there in my freezing living room marked with the literal ashes of our attempts to save ourselves brought new meaning to the ritual.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday symbolize mourning, repentance, and mortality. They remind us of God’s words to Adam after the fall; “You are dust and to dust, you shall return” (Gen 3:19). We recognize how we, like Adam, have rejected what God offers for what we want and accepted the lie that we can fix our own problems and meet our own needs. We acknowledge death as the consequence of our sinfulness and grieve our inability to do anything about it.

But the Ash Wednesday ashes symbolize something else. They are not sprinkled over us or painted as an “x marks the spot” for an executioner, but rather are placed in the shape of a cross on our foreheads, just as was done at our baptism. In this way, we are reminded that while sin brings death, it has already been accomplished by Jesus on my behalf and that just as I share in his death because of my baptism, I too will share in his resurrection.

We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. Romans 6:4

Just as the botched fire in our fireplace forced us to acknowledge our insufficiency and need to accept the free gift of shelter offered by others, the ritual of placing a cross of ashes on my forehead each Lent calls me to acknowledge my need for Jesus and to declare my reliance on him alone.

We hear the word “unprecedented” used quite a bit lately. We have seen things this year that we never imagined and many which we hope never to experience again. That is certainly true of last week’s storm and of the ongoing clean-up! As we begin our 2021 Lenten Journey in a way we never have before, however, I’m grateful for how the Lord is continuing to meet me in these unprecedented times with his unparalleled grace and love and I pray he will do the same for you as together we “Return to the Lord”.

Holy Week Services at Holy Cross Lutheran Church