"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" --traditional words spoken on Ash Wednesday as ashes are traced on the forehead in the sign of the cross
best thing of all is, God is with us." --reported to be the final words
of John Wesley (founder of the Methodist movement in England)
"When we are living, it is in Christ Jesus, and when we're dying,
it is in the Lord. Both in our living and in our dying, we belong to
God." --from the hymn Pues Si Vivimos (When We are Living)
night, as I smudged ashes on foreheads with the words above ("Remember
that you are dust..."), I was struck by two paradoxical feelings--how
uncomfortable it felt on the one hand, and how freeing on the other.
For those who don't know, Ash Wednesday is the first day of the
season of Lent, a season characterized by repentance and renewed
commitment to God. Every year, on Ash Wednesday, Lent begins with the
reminder of our mortality--which is an inescapable part of being human.
Being reminded of our mortality reminds us of our humanity which, in
turn, is a reminder of our utter dependence upon God. Hence, the season
of Lent is a time to do some "soul clean-up" with a renewed commitment
to trust God, and God alone.
There was a time in my life when I was more at peace with my own
mortality. Maybe it was because I was young and foolish--I was in my
20's at the time. But I can't help but wonder if it was because I spent
a year working in a hospice for homeless men with full-blown AIDS where
death was inescapable. I know it sounds bleak, but in a way being
exposed to death--as tragic as it often was--normalized it. What I mean
is that I began to understand that death is as much a part of life as
being born. It will happen to all of us, sooner or later. Because in so
many ways we shield ourselves from death, no wonder so many feel great
fear and anxiety when they are in the presence of dying and death.
Though I never got completely used to it, working in an environment
where death was not a stranger eased some of my fear of it.
But that was then. Now, in my late 30's and with two small
children, I am not so cavalier about death. I look at my children and
worry over what their lives will be like if something happens to me. I
have a deep sense of responsibility for their well being. I look at my
children and wonder what my life will be like if something happens to them.
Though it seemed cute at the time, it gave me pause when my own
girls--5 and 1 1/2--asked me to trace the sign of the cross in ashes on
their foreheads. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall
return." I couldn't even bring myself to say the words. I don't want to
think about their mortality--they are just children, after all.
But that's what Ash Wednesday forces me to do--to acknowledge my
own mortality, and the mortality of all those I know and love. That's
the uncomfortable feeling I felt last night. In a death-denying
culture, it's no wonder I would feel that discomfort. At the same time,
however, there is a sense of freedom in acknowledging my mortality. It
is freeing because it is an affirmation that I am not God, and don't
need to be. There is a sense of honesty in acknowledging my mortality
which allows me to let go of my illusions of power and control and
perfection. I am a finite creature, plain and simple, a creature of
God. As I looked around that circle of human beings with their
mortality smudged on their foreheads, I thought, "Well look at us, O
God, your creatures. Not one of us is perfect. But in our living and in
our dying, we belong to you."
The spiritual move Ash Wednesday challenges me to make is this--to
entrust the whole of my life to God. Not to run away from death. Not to
pretend like it does not exist. But to acknowledge it and at the very
same time to say,
"In you alone, O God, I place my trust."
Blessings on you,
Prayer: Compassionate God, Help me to live not in the shadow of death, but in the strong light of your merciful grace. Amen.