"Dust you are and to dust you shall return
Turn from your sin and be faithful to Christ"
In the liturgy of the church, there is perhaps little to match the seriousness of this declaration, made as a cross is marked in ash on the forehead of a fellow Christian. Echoing the words of God to the Man and the Woman, it reminds us of the most obvious fact about us, that we will die.
A fact that we hide from at our peril and yet one which our contemporary society seems hell bent on ignoring. Perhaps it is the sign of the end of yet another age, but we seem to pour more and more energy into "Amusing ourselves to death" (to borrow Neil Postman's memorable phrase), which is another way of saying 'ignoring it altogether.
It was not so very long ago that evangelists would appeal to The Fact with regard to conversion - "choose for Christ now - before it is too late, then when you face death you will face it with confidence". But more and more the emphasis with regard to faith and death has been, "we believe in life before death", to borrow the slogan of the charity, Christian Aid.
Both in their own way miss the point - both are right and both are wrong. Lent sharpens the issue up for us.
In the Wilderness Jesus learns total trust in God, his Father. In turning down Satan's offer of three easy ways out, ways of avoiding the Cross, Jesus faces that which we must all face. He begins to live as one who has already died - for in death where else will we place our trust and our hope??
But what a life he Lives, as though dead.
The Evangelist gets it right, for we must all die and face God. But he gets it wrong with regard to timing, for we are called to die before our bodies do it for us. Turning to Christ and following Him is not about what will happen some years down the line, it is the decision to die to ourselves and thus enter Life, Now. Life before death, as the charity says correctly, but That Life is only found through the death of self denial and following Christ, in losing everything that we might find Life. It is a Life that is before our physical death but not apart from death. It is not the stuff of simple slogans.
Rather it is Life through death, before death and overcoming death.
Putting off heaven 'til you die misinterprets eternal life in terms of chronology, that we enter the Kingdom when our bodies expire. The reality is that in Christ the Eternal has stepped into time, that we might in time step into the Kingdom Now, by getting the dying stuff over and done with.
Dust you are and to dust you shall return - we are confronted with the seriousness of death, as were the man and the woman. But a new and glorious way has opened that we might get our dying over and done with, so that we might truly Live - Turn from your sin and be faithful to Christ.
It is in dying that we Live. In letting go of the small, petty things we think so Significant that we 'Could Not Possibly Live' without them, we discover that we weren't living at all. We are asked through disciplines of self denial to discover that if we stop living for ourselves and start living in and thru and for God, we enter Life.
In a sense we already know something of this in our world - for there are those who are faced with death who suddenly find new life in that they have nothing to lose.
This points us to the Truth - that in losing everything for his sake, we literally have nothing to lose, not even our life - and thus we are set Free to Live.