In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
This is a strange way for Luke to open his Gospel. This story, designed to convince people of the truth of the message they had heard, begins with a righteous couple who haven’t received what their religious culture tells them to expect. It may very well have been that their childless state gave rise to some behind-the-hand gossip of some misdemeanour in their lives for which God was punishing them. Whether that is true or not the one thing we know for certain is that they were old and, though Zechariah was still active in his priestly role, he may have considered that his productive life was nearing it’s end.
It is appropriate to think of this on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent. This is the day when many Christian traditions, including Catholics and Anglicans, wear their faith on their sleeve, or more accurately on their forehead. The tradition is that the palms used the previous year on Palm Sunday are burnt and the ashes collected and stored till Ash Wednesday the following year. It’s a gentle symbol of the fact that no matter how high we may soar, we begin and end in the earth. We are all growing old.
At the Ash Wednesday ceremony the priest makes the sign of the cross on everyone’s forehead with the ash. As he does so he recites “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
One Ash Wednesday a few years ago I happened to be in New York and decided to visit a big church on Broadway, that famously busy street. I joined a line of worshippers queuing up to receive the sign of their mortality and to hear the promise of their coming death. Meanwhile, outside on Broadway, the rest of the world raced by doing whatever it was they were to do on that or any given Wednesday.
Inside the priest sat for the entire day waiting for such worshippers who might enter in order to be reminded of their ashy identity.
It struck me that apart from this particular occasion which for many Christian traditions happens annually, the only other time these words will be spoken over me will be at my funeral.
Remember that you are dusty ash, and to dust you will one day return.
It is therefore kind of Luke to open his story this way, to remind us that even though we may feel we are nearing the end, or have shot our bolt, there is always time for one more faithful, obedience.
And so we open our Lenten fast with the same reminder that we are all heading towards our end, but the call of God can still be heard if we have ears to hear. It’s a reminder too that ending well may be just as important as the distance we have travelled. This thought becomes increasingly important as we move further in to Lent.
God of Life and boundless energy
Thank you for this gentle reminder
Of our beginning and our end.
We are grateful for the grace
of the years we have had
And the mercy
of the time we have left.
We enter into this season of Lent
The season of fasting
With this reminder that our time is short.
But we also remember what comes next,
That death was followed by resurrection
And so we pray for the faith to believe
That there is always one obedience left
Strengthen us to travel well through Lent
And make us wise about our end