“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
--Hebrews 11: 1
In our particular time and space, I do not know that there is a greater temptation than the temptation to a tragically-short sided view of reality. We are everywhere tempted to believe that what we can see and touch, what we can accumulate and what we can reasonably observe, yes, that these things are really all that is left for us. There are forces will make cynical ploys on our weaknesses and fears of death in order to line their own pockets. They will have us believe that our lives, and the quality of those lives, can be extended ad infinitum, and that one minor and inconvenient fact we call death, well, that is to be ignored and denied at all cost, so that the charade of materialism may continue uninterrupted.
This is, I think, what makes Ash Wednesday’s ritual so entirely powerful. In a culture where the reality of death is everywhere suppressed, the Christian church stands together and says “no,” that we are all dust and to dust we will return. It is, to me, sort of like a giant, cultural exhale. It is a relief to stand up and tell the emperor that he indeed has no clothes, to name a reality, together, that everyone knows to be true. But this squaring ourselves to the reality of death, this takes an incredible amount of courage, for there is nothing more terrifying than admitting this fact to ourselves and to one another. In a culture where we can so easily distract ourselves, where endless entertainment is readily available, what compels the church to name this fact?
This, dearly beloved, is where the gift of faith is of such incredible importance. The writer to the Letter of Hebrews names faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The church, then, is able to deal honestly with death, to wear our mortality on our bodies, because of the faith in the crucified Christ that the Holy Spirit works in our lives. Yes, faith is that deep yearning for immortality, the unshakably beautiful notion that we will enter into a day without end, a day in which nothing will be on our lips except the sounds of praise for a God who has made God’s home amongst us. Yes, faith is that daring, audacious thing that can be honest about death because it compels us to believe in a reality that is larger than the grave. For faith looks upon the crucified Christ, the broken and expiring body of this Jesus, and says if God is here in this place, then there is nowhere that I can ever be without God. This is the meaning of faith: to trust that God’s goodness in the cross and resurrection is the last and final word, and that what God has begun in our baptisms will be carried to completion as we see God face to face.
You want to know the even better news? This faith is a present reality. While it is, as Hebrews states, the assurance of things hoped for, this hope meets us right here in the present tense and breathes new life into our daily habits and rituals, animating the mundane with the presence of the holy. We need not wait for the new life to begin; for the abundance of an endless tomorrow is spilling over into our todays. Faith reaches over the chasm of time, and takes hold of us, right here and right now. The new day has already broken and Christ’s grace is already upon you. So rise and greet the new day. In Jesus’ name, amen.