Lent begins

To contemplate Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, those sobering words accompanying the imposition of ashes are a good place to start.  (More personally, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”!)

This is called a memento mori, a reminder that you are going to die.  How can it be helpful to meditate on that unpleasant fact?  How can that change your perspective on things?   What does that have to do with Lent?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • larry

    Ultimately, it makes the Gospel, word and sacrament, sweeter than ever because they become in reality and fact, and not just theory all one has to cling too. We all wrestle with the weeds of life constantly crowding out the articles of faith on the one hand and trials of despair on the other. So going to thinking of such ultimate ends “death for me” kind of clears the intermediary anxieties that lead up to that and gets to the point. Then contemplating it deeply for one’s self, the reality of it, is where the “rubber meets the road” and it serves to destroy all those other “trusts” and internal machinations in secretly investing trust in such things one surreptitiously builds up “for assurance” out side of the Word and Sacrament. Having destroyed these it then makes room for the all the more sweeter external for me Gospel. It makes “I am baptized (and all that underlay that)” something more clung to and held in the heart as more cherished and especially at the time of death. It makes the reality of the sacrament ever more cherished in the heart that says, “But I am in truth Christ’s betrayer and have done as He commanded-taken and eaten and drank His body and blood, and so I am named in the will and His estate belongs to me.” In short it is an operation of Law (alien work) that sets up for the Gospel (proper work) and vanquishes death, sin and the devil in one fail swoop.

    It makes the best way to die, in the dying hour or moment for one, and this precise situation is not always possible, but the best way would be to die with the sacrament of Christ’s blood freshly wetted on one’s lips.

  • larry

    Ultimately, it makes the Gospel, word and sacrament, sweeter than ever because they become in reality and fact, and not just theory all one has to cling too. We all wrestle with the weeds of life constantly crowding out the articles of faith on the one hand and trials of despair on the other. So going to thinking of such ultimate ends “death for me” kind of clears the intermediary anxieties that lead up to that and gets to the point. Then contemplating it deeply for one’s self, the reality of it, is where the “rubber meets the road” and it serves to destroy all those other “trusts” and internal machinations in secretly investing trust in such things one surreptitiously builds up “for assurance” out side of the Word and Sacrament. Having destroyed these it then makes room for the all the more sweeter external for me Gospel. It makes “I am baptized (and all that underlay that)” something more clung to and held in the heart as more cherished and especially at the time of death. It makes the reality of the sacrament ever more cherished in the heart that says, “But I am in truth Christ’s betrayer and have done as He commanded-taken and eaten and drank His body and blood, and so I am named in the will and His estate belongs to me.” In short it is an operation of Law (alien work) that sets up for the Gospel (proper work) and vanquishes death, sin and the devil in one fail swoop.

    It makes the best way to die, in the dying hour or moment for one, and this precise situation is not always possible, but the best way would be to die with the sacrament of Christ’s blood freshly wetted on one’s lips.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    It’s a realization that because of our sin, we are going to die. There will be no escaping it. We ought meditate on that fact. Jesus came into this world to do the same…but that we might live.

    I pray all a good and contemplative Lent. Invite someone to Lenten services. You never know.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    It’s a realization that because of our sin, we are going to die. There will be no escaping it. We ought meditate on that fact. Jesus came into this world to do the same…but that we might live.

    I pray all a good and contemplative Lent. Invite someone to Lenten services. You never know.

  • kenneth

    Larry, that is the best thing I have ever read as to our eventual dying. It is on a par with Martin Luther’s eloquent commentary of Galations.

    To me I long also for that happy day when our alien works will no longer affect us in thought, word and deed. I hope our contemplation of our deaths will strenghten our hope that one day will turn to Glory!

  • kenneth

    Larry, that is the best thing I have ever read as to our eventual dying. It is on a par with Martin Luther’s eloquent commentary of Galations.

    To me I long also for that happy day when our alien works will no longer affect us in thought, word and deed. I hope our contemplation of our deaths will strenghten our hope that one day will turn to Glory!

  • Booklover

    The contemplation of our death should cause us to reflect on the nature of the God we serve. A God who didn’t sit on the throne idly, watching his created beings in their daily labors. He left the throne and entered into our world, lives, and sufferings. Then he died a horrible death. For us. What a radical God.

    The contemplation of our death should also cause our focus to be on eternal things, on what really matters. We should not be earth dwellers. This can be manifest in having children when the world is telling us that children are a bother. This can manifest in putting forth a quality product in our business, in order to serve our neighbor, even though the instant monetary remuneration is lesser. But in the light of eternity, these things matter.

    We serve an awe-some God.

  • Booklover

    The contemplation of our death should cause us to reflect on the nature of the God we serve. A God who didn’t sit on the throne idly, watching his created beings in their daily labors. He left the throne and entered into our world, lives, and sufferings. Then he died a horrible death. For us. What a radical God.

    The contemplation of our death should also cause our focus to be on eternal things, on what really matters. We should not be earth dwellers. This can be manifest in having children when the world is telling us that children are a bother. This can manifest in putting forth a quality product in our business, in order to serve our neighbor, even though the instant monetary remuneration is lesser. But in the light of eternity, these things matter.

    We serve an awe-some God.

  • http://gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    This morning, I’m going to be teaching this to the children in elementary school, most of whom are quite little. A challenge.

  • http://gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    This morning, I’m going to be teaching this to the children in elementary school, most of whom are quite little. A challenge.

  • Steve Drake

    Pastor Spomer @ 5,

    This morning, I’m going to be teaching this to the children in elementary school, most of whom are quite little. A challenge.

    I’ll be praying for you. Be sure to reference Gen. 3:19 and why God told Adam he was but dust and to dust he will return. The writer of Ecclesiastes, Solomon the Preacher, surely had this in mind as he penned his words in Ecc. 3:20.
    Blessings.

  • Steve Drake

    Pastor Spomer @ 5,

    This morning, I’m going to be teaching this to the children in elementary school, most of whom are quite little. A challenge.

    I’ll be praying for you. Be sure to reference Gen. 3:19 and why God told Adam he was but dust and to dust he will return. The writer of Ecclesiastes, Solomon the Preacher, surely had this in mind as he penned his words in Ecc. 3:20.
    Blessings.

  • http://gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    Thanks for the prayers Steve. I just got back from the morning chapel.
    Some of the kids are only 6 years old. I thought that I had to start where they were then lead them to “memento mori”. Also the kids come from diverse backgrounds, some Lutheran, some Roman Catholic, some Protestant. I planned to start with the concepts of confession and absolution. Here’s how I did it, feel free to condemn, copy, ridicule, or learn from in any way.

    I used Psalm 32 for a liturgical verse. Then I explained what Lent was, and that it begins with Ash Wednesday-

    I had a partly deflated basketball and a battery powered portable air pump. I told them that to solve a problem, one has to first admit that you have a problem. If we don’t admit the problem, we can have no solution.

    I have one of the older kids volunteer to come up with me. I try to dribble the deflated ball and it goes splat on the floor. My volunteer loudly declares, “Pastor, your ball is flat! You have to fix your basketball!” But I stay in denial telling her, “You’re just being mean to me! There’s nothing wrong with my ball. My ball is just fine! You’re hurting my feelings!” this goes back and forth for a few seconds. I pause to point out that my character is trapped in his problem as long as he denies it. Then I confess that my ball is flat, then I can pump it up. Which I do. Dribbling is now easy, problem solved.

    Then I say, a flat basketball is a small problem that man can solve. But what if the problem were bigger, a problem no human could fix? If my house burned down to ashes, could someone use a tweezers and some glue and put it back together? The kids respond, No. Then I say, we all have problems that we can not solve, sin and death. But the good news is that God has come down to us, became one of us and died and rose again to take away our sins and give us eternal life.
    I then quote from St. John, If we say we have no sin, we lie to ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God is merciful and just and will forgive our sins and cleans us from all unrighteousness. “So when we have the ashes put on our forehead we remember that we have a problem that we can’t solve but if we confess to God Jesus solves the problem that no one else can.”
    As I placed ashes on each child, I quoted, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”
    I hope that it got the message across to the little ones.

  • http://gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    Thanks for the prayers Steve. I just got back from the morning chapel.
    Some of the kids are only 6 years old. I thought that I had to start where they were then lead them to “memento mori”. Also the kids come from diverse backgrounds, some Lutheran, some Roman Catholic, some Protestant. I planned to start with the concepts of confession and absolution. Here’s how I did it, feel free to condemn, copy, ridicule, or learn from in any way.

    I used Psalm 32 for a liturgical verse. Then I explained what Lent was, and that it begins with Ash Wednesday-

    I had a partly deflated basketball and a battery powered portable air pump. I told them that to solve a problem, one has to first admit that you have a problem. If we don’t admit the problem, we can have no solution.

    I have one of the older kids volunteer to come up with me. I try to dribble the deflated ball and it goes splat on the floor. My volunteer loudly declares, “Pastor, your ball is flat! You have to fix your basketball!” But I stay in denial telling her, “You’re just being mean to me! There’s nothing wrong with my ball. My ball is just fine! You’re hurting my feelings!” this goes back and forth for a few seconds. I pause to point out that my character is trapped in his problem as long as he denies it. Then I confess that my ball is flat, then I can pump it up. Which I do. Dribbling is now easy, problem solved.

    Then I say, a flat basketball is a small problem that man can solve. But what if the problem were bigger, a problem no human could fix? If my house burned down to ashes, could someone use a tweezers and some glue and put it back together? The kids respond, No. Then I say, we all have problems that we can not solve, sin and death. But the good news is that God has come down to us, became one of us and died and rose again to take away our sins and give us eternal life.
    I then quote from St. John, If we say we have no sin, we lie to ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God is merciful and just and will forgive our sins and cleans us from all unrighteousness. “So when we have the ashes put on our forehead we remember that we have a problem that we can’t solve but if we confess to God Jesus solves the problem that no one else can.”
    As I placed ashes on each child, I quoted, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”
    I hope that it got the message across to the little ones.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    Pastor S…great analogy. I will gladly copy this for my family devotions.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    Pastor S…great analogy. I will gladly copy this for my family devotions.

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    Pres. Harrison-Bold-honorable-knows his scripture AND the Constitution!
    Carol-CS
    LA LFL

  • http://carolmsblog.blogspot.com/ C-Christian Soldier

    Pres. Harrison-Bold-honorable-knows his scripture AND the Constitution!
    Carol-CS
    LA LFL

  • George A. Marquart

    Is it an unpleasant fact? The older I get, the less unpleasant the prospect becomes.

    I am struck by the contradiction between the sermons we often hear about the glories of the hereafter, and the way people behave at funerals, when someone has supposedly reached that glorious hereafter.

    For many years I have thought that when our Lord wept at his friend’s funeral, He did so because He knew He was not doing His friend any favors. Our Lord never wept for Himself, as we do at funerals. His concern was always the other. But would the words, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” be as convincing without the resurrection of a dead man?

    I read St. Paul, Philippians 1:21 “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” But right afterwards he writes, Philippians 2:25, “Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; 26 for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another.” So it was not better for Epaphroditus to be with Christ? God let him stay on earth out of mercy, as if dying were a more unpleasant alternative? And Paul would have had sorrow, instead of being glad that his friend was in eternal bliss?

    God has had mercy on me also; He has given me confidence in His word, Revelations 21: 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” I am certain that God will make His promises come true for me and every believer, even if we are afraid at the moment of death. But I hope and pray with every fiber of my being that at the last moment on earth, I will continue to trust His promises, which I have heard and believed all of my life, and not fear.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • George A. Marquart

    Is it an unpleasant fact? The older I get, the less unpleasant the prospect becomes.

    I am struck by the contradiction between the sermons we often hear about the glories of the hereafter, and the way people behave at funerals, when someone has supposedly reached that glorious hereafter.

    For many years I have thought that when our Lord wept at his friend’s funeral, He did so because He knew He was not doing His friend any favors. Our Lord never wept for Himself, as we do at funerals. His concern was always the other. But would the words, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” be as convincing without the resurrection of a dead man?

    I read St. Paul, Philippians 1:21 “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” But right afterwards he writes, Philippians 2:25, “Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; 26 for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another.” So it was not better for Epaphroditus to be with Christ? God let him stay on earth out of mercy, as if dying were a more unpleasant alternative? And Paul would have had sorrow, instead of being glad that his friend was in eternal bliss?

    God has had mercy on me also; He has given me confidence in His word, Revelations 21: 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” I am certain that God will make His promises come true for me and every believer, even if we are afraid at the moment of death. But I hope and pray with every fiber of my being that at the last moment on earth, I will continue to trust His promises, which I have heard and believed all of my life, and not fear.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

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  • WTBA

    George, thanks for writing that. I see it the same way. I am only in my early 40s, but I work in hospitals with mostly elderly patients and in a nursing home. It is hard for me not to recall the “to die is gain” statement as I go through many of my days.

    I once had a conversation with my husband about this and Advance Directives. My analogy went something like this: For X number of years you live in a dusty old town between the sewerage plant, the dump, and the biggest pig and chicken farm in a thousand miles. Your family and townspeople talk constantly about a place called Hawaii that has all sorts of beautiful and wonderful things. A paradise of sorts. One day, you finally get a chance to go live in this paradise everyone has been saying is so great. Then everyone does everything they possibly can to stop you from going! I just don’t get it.

    I do get that their is much pain in being separated in so harsh a fashion from people you love, though. That is how we know what evil is in the most intimate of senses. Satan is a liar, but he was not lying when he said we would be “knowing evil”. The fall most certainly has allowed us to become intimately knowledgeable of evil. But Christ saves.

  • WTBA

    George, thanks for writing that. I see it the same way. I am only in my early 40s, but I work in hospitals with mostly elderly patients and in a nursing home. It is hard for me not to recall the “to die is gain” statement as I go through many of my days.

    I once had a conversation with my husband about this and Advance Directives. My analogy went something like this: For X number of years you live in a dusty old town between the sewerage plant, the dump, and the biggest pig and chicken farm in a thousand miles. Your family and townspeople talk constantly about a place called Hawaii that has all sorts of beautiful and wonderful things. A paradise of sorts. One day, you finally get a chance to go live in this paradise everyone has been saying is so great. Then everyone does everything they possibly can to stop you from going! I just don’t get it.

    I do get that their is much pain in being separated in so harsh a fashion from people you love, though. That is how we know what evil is in the most intimate of senses. Satan is a liar, but he was not lying when he said we would be “knowing evil”. The fall most certainly has allowed us to become intimately knowledgeable of evil. But Christ saves.

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  • Steve Drake

    Pastor Spomer @ 7,

    As I placed ashes on each child, I quoted, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”
    I hope that it got the message across to the little ones.

    Beautiful. A verse I’m sure many will come to memorize in years to come, recognizing our sin nature in the first Adam, and our final solution in the last. A fitting and proper end to a great example and great analogy with the basketball.

  • Steve Drake

    Pastor Spomer @ 7,

    As I placed ashes on each child, I quoted, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”
    I hope that it got the message across to the little ones.

    Beautiful. A verse I’m sure many will come to memorize in years to come, recognizing our sin nature in the first Adam, and our final solution in the last. A fitting and proper end to a great example and great analogy with the basketball.


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