In 1980, one of the biggest and most powerful organizations in the world decided to launch an advertising campaign.
A little-known copywriter by the name of Earl Carter was hired and came up with an idea that was so simple but so powerful and captivating, it instantly caught on.
In 1999, the publication Advertising Age named it one of the best advertising campaigns of the 20th century. It is considered such an important part of American history that today, Carter’s concept sheet — the notepad containing that phrase — is preserved in the permanent collection at a history museum. And it has endured. The client ended up using the campaign and its slogan for over two decades.
Earl Carter’s client was the U.S. Army. His slogan: “Be All You Can Be.”
This morning, Ash Wednesday, that is the call to each of us — each of us in all our humanity, our weakness, our frailty — but each of us, by the grace of God, determined to become something more than what we are.
If you want to define Lent, these five words say it all.
“Be all you can be.”
Be the prayer warrior you can be.
Be the person of compassion and mercy you can be.
Be the child of God and the follower of Christ you can be.
Return to me, we hear in the reading from Joel this morning. And Paul tells the Corinthians, Now is an acceptable time.
Lent is an acceptable time to return to the Lord— a time to turn to Christ, walking the road with him into the desert, to Calvary, anticipating the great gift of our salvation, Easter.
More than just an acceptable time, Lent a time for self-reflection, a time for taking a hard look at ourselves in the mirror.
And this day, what will we see?
Ashes. Debris. Dust.
The remnant of a fire that once burned.
We will see that we are people who have been marked, emblazoned with a reminder of life — and a foreshadowing of death.
But that isn’t all.
In a powerful way, the ashes are also a sign of possibility, of renewal, of hope.
On the day of our baptism, we received a flickering candle with the words, “Receive the light of Christ.” What has happened to that light?
Maybe it isn’t as strong as it should be. Maybe it is little more than ash. Maybe we have work to do, to bring it back.
This is a time to do that, to recommit ourselves.
To be all we can be.
How do we begin?
Lent is built around three disciplines – fasting, prayer, giving alms.
So, we do without and go without. And we remember those who go without every day. The poor, the hungry, the desperate.
We pray, fast and we sacrifice. We fast from food — but we should also fast from selfishness, from greed, from indifference, from pettiness.
Many of us will give things up — chocolate or television or Facebook.
But as I tell people every Ash Wednesday: giving up begins with giving.
Giving a prayer for someone you may not know — maybe, even, an enemy.
Giving attention to someone who is alone.
Giving money, alms, to those in need.
It is giving witness to the Gospel and sharing the love of Christ with generosity, with humility, with joy.
In the Gospel we heard a moment ago, Jesus told his followers, “Do not be like the hypocrites.” In other words, don’t be who you aren’t.
Be who you are.
Today, as leave this church and walk out into the world, we do that. We proclaim to anyone who sees us what we are: we are dust. We have been marked. We are flawed.
And we have work to do.
Because we want to be all we can be.
It isn’t easy to follow the disciplines of this season. It never is. We may stumble. We may backslide. We may fall back into bad habits. We may forget it’s Friday and have that hamburger at McDonald’s.
But that isn’t just a problem of Lent —it’s the challenge of life.
We need to keep going. Begin anew every day.
And that, too, is part of the journey.
The words we will hear in a few moments are familiar — and challenging.
“Repent and turn back to the Gospel.”
“Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Those phrases tell us, in the most urgent way possible, just what we need to know — and all that we need to do.
Today, begin the journey with Jesus: 40 days of preparation, of reparation.
Change. Pray. Give. Grow. Fulfill the divine potential God has given you.
This Lent, Christ says to each of us: be all you can be.