I always think it is interesting how smells can trigger memories. Though I was nine when my grandfather stopped smoking a pipe, yesterday as I was sitting outside, I smelled that distinct odor, and images and memories flooded my mind. It was even more interesting that it happened this week, as we approach Ash Wednesday. Now, my grandfather probably never made a big deal of Ash Wednesday, as traditionally, this was a day that was not emphasized by the Presbyterian Church. However, the core of my grandfather’s theology was the very first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, which he had to memorize when he was confirmed.
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
All the reformed catechisms start in a similar way, and most theologians would look at this question as foundational to everything that follows. But as we think of it within the context of the season, Lent, by its own definition, is a time of preparation much like that of Advent. In Lent, we are preparing to find real acceptance of Christ, so that when we come to Easter, we can truly celebrate the Resurrection.
This means that a big part of Lent is about reconciliation, both with God and each other. This is why we are taking on the study of social justice through this Lenten season. At the core of this question is the self-reflective activity of thinking deeply about one’s relationship with God and asking if we are really ordering our life not based on what we want, but rather what God wants. It also reminds us that no matter what we go through, we belong to God, and God will grant us salvation.
In Ash Wednesday, we look to the ashes as a reminder of our mortality. People had a good idea about how the body decomposed, and that after a while, what was once living would again turn to dust. And from that dust, one day, more living would arise. So, for us, ashes are a reminder of our human mortality, and that like those before us, our earthly bodies will die, BUT we have hope! Because no matter what happens with our bodies, our souls are protected because of the promise of the Resurrection and the life everlasting.
This is why my grandfather loved this passage so much. No matter where he found himself, or in what situation, he could look back to this question and refocus his priorities. In Lent, this is what we are called to do, and when we refocus our priorities right, we can truly begin to live!
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen