A Jewish saying counsels that each person should have a note in each pocket.
In one pocket, the note should announce “for you the universe was created”.
In the other, “you are dust”.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust, that our lives are short, and that we go wrong in so many ways.
It reminds us of our need for forgiveness and God’s loving grace in giving it to us.
Today is also the day when we might begin a Lenten fast.
We might give up chocolate or alcohol, spend less time staring at screens, or let go of whatever else it is that distracts us from eternity.
Not that these things are necessarily wrong, but the best things can become a problem if they push out things that are more important.
Alternatively, we might resolve to take things up: to spend more time in prayer or Bible reading, to volunteer our time to help others, to follow a Lent course.
Whatever we do or stop doing, our aim is the same: to make more room for God in our lives, to refocus on what’s really important, to make ourselves a little more prepared for the day when we become dust and meet God face to face.
We clear our lives out a bit to let in God’s light and grow in wholeness, just as a fruit farmer prunes trees to let light in and encourage fruit to grow.
Not that this is necessarily easy.
It’s when we give up our cherished comforts or sacrifice our precious free time that we realise what a hold such things can have on us.
We suddenly notice the empty place inside us that we’ve been trying to fill with chocolate or TV or the internet.
We find out what we really miss and what we’re really afraid of, whether it’s hunger, silence, loneliness, boredom or something else.
But if we feel emptiness and longing, impatience or boredom, a craving to be filled, or a restless desire to go back to our old comforts, this isn’t something to run away from.
This is a call to connect with our need for God.
It’s a reminder that there’s a place within us designed for God and which nothing else can really fill for long.
In St Augustine’s famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.
So, the journey of Lent, though it may seem negative with its talk of sin and repentance, and though it reminds us that we are dust and our lives are short, is an invitation to travel towards wholeness and healing.
It calls us to face the reality of our lives, not to harm but to heal.
It draws us towards a more joyful and fulfilled life, full of wonder at God’s love, seen all around us in the grace he extends and the world he’s given us.
Lent invites us to experience restoration, and a newer, deeper relationship with the God who loves us, rejoices over us and created the universe for us.
Lent is a call to find new life through shaking off the things that trap us and the things that separate us from God and one another.
May we all be able to hear and respond to this call.