In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The ashes that will mark our foreheads today are to be for us “a sign of our mortality and penitence.” The season of Lent is therefore a season for the whole person, body and soul: the mortality of the one and the penitence of the other. And yet these twin themes are signified together by the single sign of ashes, imposed upon the forehead of a single individual. Thus they are bound together, inextricably, just as body and soul are bound together. True penitence will never stray far from our acceptance of death, nor will death require of us anything less than a final act of penitence before the mercy of God. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return -- Ash Wednesday reminds us that mortality is the form that penitence takes; that the Christian life of penitence is the practice of death.
But this annual reminder of our mortality confronts us at the level of our most basic drive for self-preservation, which by itself is all well and good. Humans instinctively protect the lives that God has given us from danger and harm, and so the fear of death is one of the major guiding principles of human life. But the Bible describes the fear of death as something that enslaves us; something that has a power of its own that binds us.  For human beings, the fear of death is therefore never just a matter of our natural sense of caution and safety. Because human mortality is the consequence of sin, death forever stands as the irrefutable evidence of our condition. And yet death is the one thing that sin cannot admit or accept. Sin is fundamentally a kind of self-deception, a futile attempt to claim life for ourselves apart from God and neighbor. It represents a rebellion against the God who is the creator and preserver of life itself, and thus it inevitably leads to death, for anything that is alienated from the life of God is dead by definition.
But once we forsake the divine life of God, we are left to search for alternative sources of life instead. We cannot escape our need for dependence; the most we can do is disavow it. As a result, when we sin, we pervert our instinct for self-preservation by deceiving ourselves into thinking that we need an ever-increasing number of things or experiences or even people in order to live. And we can never live enough. Having rejected the single treasure of heaven -- which is God Himself -- we must vigilantly acquire as many substitutes among earthly treasures as we can. That these earthly treasures eventually return to the same dust to which we will return only heightens our anxiety and inflames our desire for an evermore fleeting satisfaction. This counterfeit life apart from God inevitably becomes a matter of control because anything that is not under our power can only be a potential threat to our carefully contrived security. All oppression and exploitation and violence proceed from this inner desire for mastery over life, from the great systemic sins that embed themselves in our social order to the intimate manipulations among families, friends, and personal relationships. And there is no greater threat to this desire for mastery than death, for death is not only the end of our life on earth but the decisive end of our inflated self-preservation. So our problem is that our perception of what gives us life versus what threatens us with death can’t be trusted, because what we uncritically take for granted as “life” in fact includes all manner of unnecessary things that we’ve smuggled in for fear of the vulnerability and dispossession that we equate with “death.” We do not know where true life is to be found; or, perhaps more accurately, we have a suspicion deep down of where it is to be found, but we must ignore it, suppress it, and deny it at all costs because of our investment in this perverse security. In our clearer moments, we face the reality that life is found in giving it away, that the dispossession of self in the divine life of charity is the key to the fullest life.
Since penitence is first and foremost a turning away from sin, it accordingly begins with the acceptance of death, the death of dispossession that sin so vehemently refuses to allow. To accept the reality of death is to acknowledge the evidence of the human condition. But penitence is no act of morbid despair. On the contrary, the only reason we engage in the solemnities of these forty days of Lent is because we already know how the story ends. The season of Lent is established retroactively, as it were; it is only because the tomb is empty that the way of the cross is worth walking in. But that’s the thing: it remains the way of the cross -- the way of death. The cross proclaims that it is only through death that we come into life. “Christ did not die for us instead of us,” as one writer emphatically puts it; Christ did not undergo death so that we don’t have to.  Nor do we gain access to the new life of his resurrection by being exempted from death. Rather, Christ died for us in order to make it possible for us to die in him and be raised accordingly. As St. Paul says, it’s only “if we have been united with him in a death like his [that] we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  So death remains ahead of us as the great inevitability that it has always been. But for those who are united with Christ, death is now transfigured: it becomes for us a death like his, the very form of the abundant life that Christ has secured for us by his cross and resurrection.
So let me be clear that Lent is not about earning God’s forgiveness. We were buried with Christ in baptism; the body of sin has been destroyed and we are no longer enslaved by the fear of death. We simply accept this and rejoice. But that’s the other thing: all we have do is accept this and rejoice -- and therein lies the catch. As long we are in this mortal body, the fear of death and the temptation of mastery and self-possession will continually haunt us and demand our dependence in exchange for an illusion of security. But once we are united to a death like his in baptism, this new life of liberation is ironically lived by “carrying in the body the death of Jesus,” to use St. Paul’s words again.  We are saved from a death like ours to share in a death like his. To carry in your body the death of Jesus is thus to reject all the compromises that Christ himself rejected unto death on the cross, for the cross is the final temptation, the final test of Christ’s exclusive devotion to the will of the Father. To carry in your body the death of Jesus is to cancel your excessive dependence upon things that are not God; to renounce your residual claims to life apart from God and neighbor. It is to submit yourself to the wilderness of Lent.
Because, liturgically speaking, this is the day when Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” ventures out into the wilderness ahead of us and alone for forty days, to be tempted in every way as we are and to subsist on every word which comes from the mouth of God.  And it’s no coincidence that his time in the desert is a kind of prelude to his death. He is in solitude, and is therefore removed from human society, just as the dead are removed from the living; he is fasting, and therefore along with the dead makes no use of nature’s supply of nourishment. But is precisely through his unyielding resistance to the demands of bodily life and the temptations of the devil that he confirms his identity as the Beloved Son who does the will of the Father. He lives life to the fullest precisely because he renounces all of the false securities on which we depend. And his renunciation is ultimately so complete and so radical that he will endure the agony and shame of the cross in order to maintain it. It turns out that life to the fullest is crucified.
So this Lent, lose your counterfeit life and find your true life. Forsake the mastery of earthly treasures. Acquaint yourself with Jesus’ grief. Pray for a deeper sorrow for your sins and confess them. Do not live by bread alone. And finally, contemplate these ashes as a sign of your mortality and penitence, for together they are the means by which we present our lives as a sacrifice to God, holy and blameless on account of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who claimed nothing for himself in order to fill everything with himself. Amen.
 Hebrews 2:14-15
 Herbert McCabe, “A Sermon for Ash Wednesday,” God Still Matters.
 Romans 6:5
 2 Corinthians 4:10
 Hebrews 12:2