It may be an apocryphal story, but I’ve read that when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was diagnosed with lymphoma in her early 60s she said, “If I had known this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have done all those sit-ups.” I am here to tell you today, it’s going to happen. Death is going to happen—your death and the death of everyone and everything you love. Even if you do all those sit ups and wear your seatbelt and never smoke and eat all your vegetables, it’s going to happen. Delivering this message makes me feel like the slave riding behind the conquering Roman emperor in his in the victory parade whispering, “Remember thou art mortal; remember thou art mortal.” You are mortal.
So now that I’ve broken the news of your fatal condition to you, what’s next? According to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, “Now is the acceptable time.” For what? For feeling hopeless and defeated? No. Now is the acceptable time for us to look head-on at something our culture finds unacceptable think about or talk about. We don’t even like the word DIE. We speak of people “passing on,” “crossing over,” or “going to their eternal rest.” But on this day, Christians, let’s just say it: we are dying. We are all, from the moment we are born, dying. Today we externally mark ourselves with symbols of our mortality. Soon you will hear these words said not just to a room full of people, but also to you personally: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s not too far from, “Remember thou art mortal.”
What is the point? Can any wisdom or hope be gleaned from this acknowledgement? Does how we live really matter? I wonder if knowing that we’re going to die helps us live more fully in the present moment. Maybe admitting our sins, our flaws, our shortcomings, drives us to repentance, which in turn leads to renewal? Can the season of Lent—and Ash Wed. in particular—teach us to pay attention to every day, every hour, because this might be the last.
I believe there is some merit to thinking about our fragile humanity. I believe we embrace resurrection more fully and joyously after acknowledging that death is inevitable. There can be great freedom in admitting that we have limitations, because such admissions remind us that God does NOT have limitations. While Jesus may have died, death could not confine him. God is infinite. God holds the whole world in the palm of God’s hand. And God can do what none of us can do—bring life out of death.
We put ashes on our foreheads because ashes are an Old Testament sign of repentance. When people were in mourning or grappling with guilt and sorrow, they often put on “sackcloth and ashes.” But the significance goes back further—all the way back to the beginning, when God knelt down in the dirt and molded a human being. We wear ashes are a reminder that we are not in control, cannot fully master life or death. On the other hand, when God breathes into a pile of ashes or dust it becomes a living being. We are not able to rise to every need the world has, nor—on our own—are we capable of altering even our own hearts and minds. But Now is the acceptable time to recall that though we are made of dust, God can do amazing things with dust! The God who made us from dust bunnies can work through us, can use our hands and feet to tend to creation as Adam and Eve once tended to the garden. On Ash Wed. we celebrate the truth that God’s creation is fragile, but God is not.
As Thomas Merton once wrote, “In laying upon us the light cross of ashes, the Church desires to take off our shoulders all other heavy burdens—the crushing load of worry and guilt, the dead weight of our own self-love. We should not take upon ourselves a “burden” of penance and stagger into Lent as if we were Atlas, carrying the whole world on his shoulders. . . Penance is conceived by the Church less as a burden than as a liberation. It is only a burden to those who take it up unwillingly. Love makes it light and happy. And that is another reason why Ash Wednesday is filled with the lightness of love.”
In other words, hear the whisper that we are mortal as a blessing rather than a curse. Don’t run away from it; lean into it. Fall right into God’s powerful arms. Lent invites us to “return to the Lord,” to the awareness that we are the work of God’s hands and not God ourselves. The prophet Joel calls us to “return to the Lord” with all our hearts, with fasting (that is, holding back on things we think we need to stay alive so we can reconnect with God, who is the actual wellspring of life).
We are called to return to God with “weeping and mourning, rending open our hearts,” not because God wants us to be miserable, but because God wants us to get close to the truth. The season of Lent calls us to shed our layers of old stuff like a snake sheds its dead skin. This is the time to peel back the obstacles and guards we’ve put up like a protective barrier around our hearts and take a good look inside. “Rend your hearts,” the prophet says. But since most of us probably already have broken hearts in one way or another, perhaps all we need to do is pay attention to the wounds.
What’s inside your wounded heart? How have you been shaped by the people you turned away from, as well as the people you’ve turned toward? What scars have been left by the road not taken, as well as by the roads you have? How have things done and left undone brought you to where you are today? How does your pain shape today or tomorrow?
These are not easy questions. It is not always fun to excavate our interior lives, especially the painful parts. But on Ash Wed. we admit that only by facing our own vulnerability and brokenness can we truly come to rely on God’s mercy. When we come face to face with our own dustiness, we know it’s no use trying to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We are just dust, it is true, but the good news is that God is not. Even better news is that God loves dust. Even while we are looking into our torn hearts and checkered pasts, admitting how mortal we are, God’s renewing Spirit is busily at work in those very same places, healing what is torn, knitting together the broken bits to make us whole . Now is the acceptable time to consider that we are indeed dust, and to be thankful that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
~Pastor Susan Schneider