How Small Our Span Of Life

Message for Ash Wednesday, Year A (2/22/2023)


How small our span of life, O God, our years from birth till death: a single beat within the heart, the catching of a breath, a drop within the ocean’s deep, a grain upon the shore, a flash of light before we sleep to see the sun no more.[1]


That’s the first verse of our hymn to accompany the Imposition of Ashes this evening. On Ash Wednesday, at the outset of Lent, we acknowledge with words and ashen crosses that, in the end, we get precious little time on this side of eternity. Life is a good, good gift, but the bittersweet truth is that all good things must come to an end: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or, to quote one of my favorite songwriters, “It’s the lose and the win of the world… [there’s] only one way out of the world.”[2]

The first step in our Lenten return to the Lord, our God, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” is to look death in the face. And, death is perhaps even more conspicuous this Ash Wednesday, as we draw near to the anniversary of the intractable war in Ukraine, as we lament the devastating outcome of the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, as we wring our hands at ceaseless gun violence in the United States.

Of course, the stark reality of death raises the age-old question of our ultimate place in the expanse of space of time. “When I look at your heavens,” the Psalmist sings, “the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, [O LORD,] mortals that you care for them?”[3] That’s an enduring mystery of the faith. How is it that the God of the universe takes an interest in our little lives, especially since those lives are fragile and finite?

The question of our mortality has inspired countless searches for God, and produced a dizzying array of convictions. But, what if our final destiny has less to do with our pursuit of God than it does with God’s pursuit of us?

At the end of the Revelation to John, the last book of the Bible, the author casts a beautiful vision of salvation in the fullness of time. Although the most strident voices tend to characterize the Book of Revelation according to fearful portents and punishments, the eventual purpose of this concluding prophecy is to avow that one day God will bridge the distance between us once and for all:

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; / 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.[4]


At the last, we won’t have to go to God because God will come to us. And, that vision of the end is but the consummation of God’s first pledge to dwell with us in the flesh and blood of an infant child from Nazareth, the one who grows to reveal God’s own heart, who is put to death by human hostility, yet who rises again to give us the hope of new life. Hear the third verse of our hymn for the Imposition of Ashes:

O Christ, you left eternity to plunge in time’s swift stream, to share the shortness of our span, our mortal lives redeem. You filled your cross-closed years with love; you loved us to the end and touch us with your risen life that ours may time transcend.[5]


That’s the promise that follows us all the days of our life, and the promise that dignifies our practice of the faith. Our prayer, our generosity, our fasting – every discipline, whether in Lent or any other season, takes place within the context of God’s time-bound embrace in Christ. That is, since every act of faith, hope, and love is born of God’s own grace, it’s worth it; although we’re destined to follow Jesus into death, it’s worth it.

So, join the great stream of saints as we set out on our Lenten pilgrimage together, friends, and let us “go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that [God’s] hand is leading us and [God’s] love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[6]

[1] Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr., “How Small Our Span of Life,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Assembly Edition, #636.

[2] Dave Matthews, “Why I Am.”

[3] Psalm 8:3-4.

[4] Revelation 21:1-4.

[5] Stuempfle.

[6] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Assembly Edition, 304.

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“Take My Life”; Chris Tomlin, Frances Ridley Havergal, Henri Abraham Cesar Malan, Louie Giglio. © 2003 sixsteps Music. All rights reserved. Used by permission with CCLI license #11177466.

“Will You Come and Follow Me” Text © 1987 Iona Community, admin. GIA Publications, Inc., 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638. 800.442.1358. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

“I Am the Bread of Life” Text and music © 1966 GIA Publications, Inc., 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638. 800.442.3358. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

“Take, Oh, Take Me As I Am” Text and music © 1995 Wild Goose Resource Group, Iona Community Pearce Institute, GIA Publications, Inc. exclusive agent. 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638. 800.442.3358. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

“Trading My Sorrows”; Darrell Evans; © 1998 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music (Admin. by Integrity Music). All rights reserved. Used by permission under CCLI license #11177466.