St. Paul’s – Ash Wednesday – 3/2/2022
Today is Ash Wednesday. Around the world, countless Christians from many traditions are praying and fasting today for the crisis in Ukraine… response to an invitation issued by Justine Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Francis and other church leaders. And so, on this special day, we join with millions focusing our prayers upon the escalating tragedy in Eastern Europe.
God of peace and justice,
we pray for the people of Ukraine today.
We pray for peace and the laying down of weapons.
We pray for all those who fear for tomorrow,
that your Spirit of comfort would draw near to them.
We pray for those with power over war or peace,
for wisdom, discernment and compassion
to guide their decisions.
Above all, we pray for all your precious children, at risk and in fear,
that you would hold and protect them.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
One of the things that always strikes me about this day is that we begin the Season of Lent by remembering the end. It’s not, however, just any ending, a generic ending. It is your ending and my ending that mark the beginning of this new season and that we remember this day.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Those words are the hinge between a dusty beginning, Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7), and a dusty ending, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. (Book of Common Prayer, 501).
We can talk about our beginning: where it happened, when it happened, who was there. But about our ending – when it will happen, where it will happen, how it will happen, who will be there – we don’t know. (O’Donohue) None of us do. We can’t know. But I know this. The reality of our ending is always before us.
While I have been recovering From knee replacement surgery, I found my self aware that my body does not recover as fast as when I have had other surgeries in my younger years. I started reflecting on how long I might live….as long as my great, great grandfather, Papa Joe who lived to be 106 and was alive during the Civil War….And then I had a dream a couple of days ago, triggered by the presence of our Bishop, Michael Hunn. I dreamt I was at the annual meeting of our diocese. I was looking at the agenda for the meeting. There was only one item on the agenda and it said, Michael G. Wallens Memorial Service. Something in me was saying, Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
From the day we are born there is a presence that accompanies us. It’s our constant companion, invisible and yet ever present. Regardless of who we are or where we go, it goes with us. This companion, this presence, is named death. (O’Donahue) Today we mark ourselves with the ashes of mortality, a visible sign of our invisible companion.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that death comes only at the end of our physical life. Death meets us all along the road of life through various guises. (O’Donohue) The reminders of mortality and the fragility of life all are around us. They come every time a friend or loved one dies. And it’s even more stark when she or he is our age or younger. The reminder comes with an aging body, a body that no longer does what it used to do or no longer looks like it used to look. It’s a bit slower, achier, flabbier, less agile. Illnesses and accidents hold before us how easily and quickly life can change. What is going on in Ukraineand other conflicts, mass shootings and terrorist bombings leave us wondering where, when, and who will be next. The hurricanes and wildfires and natural disasters are more reminders of the uncertainty of life. Cemeteries stand as monuments to mortality. And if you’ve ever sifted the ashes of your life you’ve surely wondered where it had gone and where it was going.
We can try to forget, ignore, or deny death but no one escapes a final ending. And here’s my question. What if escaping death is not the issue before us? I sometimes wonder if we’ve not only missed the point of Lent but maybe even missed the point of the gospel.
Maybe Lent and the gospel of Jesus are not primarily about being good, a program for changing from a bad person to a good person, so we can get a future reward. I’ve got nothing against being a good person (whatever that might mean) but I’ve never read where Jesus said, I came that you might be good, better, an improved version of yourself. What I have read is that Jesus said, I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Throughout the gospel he shows himself to be giving life, revealing life, and calling to life. And that’s not about tomorrow, after you die, or some heavenly future. Now is the day of salvation, Paul tells us (2 Corinthians 6:2). Now, in this time and in this place. Life is now.
And yet, how many of us grew up with the promise and hope of life after death and living forever? People who grew up Christian did. It’s what many people have wanted and sometimes we still do. For many of us life after death was, and maybe still is, the central focus and purpose of faith, Jesus, the Church. But the older I get and the more I experience, the more urgent life before death becomes.
Is there life in my marriage? In my parenting? In my priesthood? In my friendships? Is there life in the way I am living in this moment? Is there life in the way I see the world and relate to others? Am I growing? Am I bringing life to others? Is there life in me even as I stand before death? And if there’s not, why not? What needs to change, to be let go of, to be done differently? Those aren’t just questions for me. They’re for all of us.
What if life before death is really what Lent is about? What if life before death is really what the ashes of mortality are pointing us to? What does life before death mean for and offer you?
Yes, life is defined, limited, and bounded by death, but it is not nullified by death. Death is not a diminishment or negation of life but its intensification. (Caputo) Mortality is what gives life its vitality. (Caputo)
Think about it like this. Death is the frame around the picture of our life. It holds before us what is. It focuses our attention. It intensifies and prioritizes what really matters. That this life does not last forever does not diminish life’s value, it gives it value. (Caputo) The temporality of life means that this one moment, this now, is priceless. There will never be another moment like this one.
The question behind today’s ashes is not whether you will die, what you will give up or do for Lent, or how to improve yourself. The question is about your life before death. What do you want to do with your life with Christ? Even now….How do you want to live as the beloved of God? Do you have life before death?
The poet Mary Oliver captures this beautifully in her poem When Death Comes. She writes:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return