18 February 2010

Meditation: "Mortality"

"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

"The 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)
*****
Dear Friends,

Last 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,

Jeremy

Prayer: Compassionate God, Help me to live not in the shadow of death, but in the strong light of your merciful grace. Amen.

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