On the evening of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, our nation—and many across the world—went to bed with a pit in their stomach.

The next morning, as the sun rose in New York City, we understood more fully why.

As a fresh wave of emergency crews arrived at Ground Zero that morning, they were not prepared for what they encountered. Heaps of still-burning metal. Entire square blocks reduced to rubble.

And what was most memorable to those who were there that day: the sheer amount of dust clouding their vision, filling their lungs, and clinging to their skin and clothes for weeks to come.

Those who were at Ground Zero have a nickname for that first day following the Tuesday attacks: they call it Ash Wednesday.

Ashes are a universal symbol of rock bottom, of death, and of destruction.

Across the ancient world and all throughout the scriptures we find people sitting in piles of dust and ashes, often rubbing those ashes across their head, as a sign to the world around them that they have hit rock bottom.

There are two ways to find yourself sitting in ashes.

The first is to experience rock bottom itself. Maybe through your own choices, perhaps through circumstances beyond your control, or more likely through a blend of the two. You arrive at actual rock bottom, and you know it.

Things have gone terribly wrong. And like Job, you have nowhere else to go. So you sit in the ashes.

But there is another way to arrive at this moment.

You can come to a realization—before things go all the way south—that the path you are on will inevitably lead to destruction. To emptiness.

You think all is going well: the job, the family, the retirement. But what you only notice when you take a moment to pause is that your life is spiraling towards nothingness. You have everything you are supposed to have; but you can’t shake the feeling that you’re somehow missing everything.

You might come to this realization at an unexpected funeral for a loved one. Or when you read of an old friend caught in some sort of financial or legal trouble. Or perhaps when you find yourself thinking about your own death bed: what would you regret? What would you wish you had done? What would you wish you have said? Or left unsaid?

These moments of realization are also appropriate occasions to stop and sit in the ashes. To allow dust to be an outward and visible sign of an inward brokenness, regardless of how put together you appear from afar.

Today you may be at actual rock bottom, or you are—perhaps even in this moment—beginning to sense that you might be headed there eventually.

Either way, Ash Wednesday is an occasion for you to pause, to consider your life, and to discern where your path leads.

And, in a very tangible sense, to sit in the ashes.

But here is the secret of this season we are embarking on today: Lent is not the thing itself.

You and I diet and exercise … so that we diet and exercise. We burn calories, in order to burn calories. We think of our diet and exercises as ends themselves.

An athlete, on the other hand, beats their body into submission through diet and exercise, not as an end in and of itself, but as a means towards a greater end. An athlete trains day-in and day-out not simply to watch their waistline or keep their blood pressure under control, but in order to have the endurance to beat the defender to the far post in the 96th minute so they can tap in the winning goal.

The glory of victory is the thing itself; the exercise is merely a means to get there.

If Lent is the thing itself, what we are doing today is a fairly lame experience, and we are a rather sad group of people. Because what often happens in Lent?

We adopt habits for 40 days that we should really adopt every day of our lives, and then we spend the better part of those 40 days looking for loopholes to get out of keeping those habits.

Lent—this time of communal fasting and prayer and reflection—is not the point. It is not the thing itself.

So what is?

Every person you have ever met will die. And then on the day that the Scriptures simply call “That Day”, we will all be raised from the dead to stand—body and soul—before the God who made us.

We will experience the unveiled presence of God, in all his glory.

For some, this will be an experience of pleasure beyond compare. An eternal feast of at least our five senses. A pleasure so robust that our current physical bodies are not yet prepared to experience it.

For others it will be an experience of unimaginable horror. Of disgust beyond compare. It will be a continued rejection of the source of all Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that results in an eternal inability to experience any shade of Truth, Goodness, or Beauty.

The beatific vision—finally seeing God for who he most truly is. That is the Thing itself.

Lent is simply an exercise in becoming the sort of person—body and soul—that is prepared to enjoy the presence of God forever.

So I invite you therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a Holy Lent for no less than this reason: that you might experience pleasure beyond compare on That Day; when you find yourself standing bare in the presence of the God who made you.

But I also invite you to the observance of a Holy Lent for another reason: so that your neighbor might experience pleasure beyond compare on That Day, too. We are ambassadors for Christ, as St. Paul says. Our lives are intertwined with those of our neighbors. When we exercise throughout Lent, we are exercising for ourselves and for our neighbors.

In becoming the sort of person who will one day be capable of enjoying God forever, you will find—often in your seasons of intentional fasting and prayer—glimpses of that beauty and pleasure even here and now.

Just glimpses, to be sure. You wouldn’t survive more than a glimpse; your body and soul are not there yet.

But even a mere glimpse now of the beauty of God is enough “to awaken all the dead things of the universe into life.”

So whether you have visibly hit rock-bottom, or you have been brought to the realization that the path you are on is one that will eventually lead to rock bottom, Ash Wednesday is for you.

Because these ashes don’t represent the end of a long terrible story.

They mark the very beginning of a different story.

It is the story of the one person who didn’t need to, taking the journey to the bottom of rock bottom itself. Absorbing the circumstances and choices of our lives. Sitting in the darkest of ashes on our behalf.

And 40 days plus Sundays from now, we will experience again the unimaginable. Life emerging from the dust; beauty from ashes.

This is the story you wear on your forehead today. May this Lent be for you an occasion to live in that story more fully.