Why is Ash Wednesday such an anathema to most people? When I promote participation to worship on this day, trying to convince people that the message of this fast day is absolutely necessary to enter into the true meaning of the Christian faith, the look on their faces appears as if I had asked them to go through a root canal without anesthesia.
“Are you kidding me?” the looks on their faces convey.
“All I hear about on Ash Wednesday is ashes, dust and death. What a downer. Life is hard and burdensome enough without having to hear about my mortality and death and on a Wednesday no less, when my favorite programming is on television. No thank you!”
And yet it is a fact (not an alt-fact), a theological fact of our faith that the message of Ash Wednesday is the inverse of this response. Encountering the ashes, dust and death of our mortal being allows us to fully enter the portal of real life. You can’t apprehend the true meaning of Christianity, which is focused on new life, unless you immerse yourself in the topics of human mortality and death that Ash Wednesday addresses.
In today’s Ash Wednesday meditation from the booklet “Living Well Through Lent 2017: Listening With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength and Mind,” the writer quotes an anonymous monk who stated, “Wake up before death wakes you up!”
This is a parallel statement to C.S. Lewis’ quote that I frequently use in burial homilies, “Die before you die, there is no chance after.”
These comments convey that life is a precious gift which often gets weighed down with our burdens, distracted by our frenzied activities, jaded by our prejudices, and addicted to our habits so that we squander the whole blessed opportunity that the gift of life affords us.
Lewis sagely advises that we die from those things which kill us in this life before we literally die. Once you are dead, once you have returned to the dust from which you were created, you don’t get another chance to grasp the gift of life and live it fully.
On Ash Wednesday, the Church reminds us of our mortality and of life’s fragility and brevity. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” are poignant words that remind us our death is inevitable regardless of our best efforts to prevent it or deny its reality. Accept that reality and use your energies to focus on the here and now of your life and the quality of it, especially as that pertains to your relationship with God and your neighbor.
By reminding us of this reality, the Church also calls us to live the gift of life fully and authentically; dying to those death-giving behaviors and activities that deny us truly living as God desires us to live.
As the Absolution in today’s liturgy states, God “desires not the death of sinners but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” The truth of this desire is undergirded in Jesus’ statement to the disciples that, “I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10)
God doesn’t want us to live burdened by our addictions, bad behaviors, preoccupations, fears or prejudices, which all are death-inducing things. When we let these things define our lives, we are like Zombies, members of the walking dead. We have not “died” before we die, robbing ourselves of authentic life. That is sinful and wicked.
The movie Manchester by the Sea is a vivid example of what this means to allow this burdensome and wicked way of life to rob us of real life. The protagonist, Lee Chandler, is a man who through selfish, reckless behavior and wanton negligence sets up the circumstances for the tragic death of his three young children in a house fire. His lifestyle, which leads to this horror, is one of self-indulgence, revolving around drugs, alcohol, his desire to play more than work, and the need to have his sexual desires met on demand.
Lee is also living off the fading glory as his hometown’s most famous hockey star from his high school days. He seriously needs to face the realities of his wicked ways. Burdened by addiction, a sense of entitlement, bitterness, resentment, self-pity and lack of counsel, these behaviors prevent him from understanding that life is fragile, brief and precious. He needs to die to these things so that he may truly live life, as God desires him to.
The character comes to know the fragility and preciousness of life as he watches the fire fighters bag and remove the bodies of his three dead children from the ashes of his burned house. His children’s deaths do not become an epiphany for him, turning from his wicked ways as the ashes of those burned bodies mark him. His life continues to spiral further downward into death-inducing behaviors.
By the grace of God (through the love of a nephew for whom he has been named guardian and whose life is similarly precarious), he eventually gains a sense of life’s precious fragility, beauty and inherent worth, including his own. He slowly is transformed, possibly by the ashes that fell on him from that hideous conflagration years before.
He begins to journey the road of healing and wholeness, turning from those wicked ways that made him a walking dead person. We can see the inklings of one coming back to life, being transformed and redeemed. It’s a holy moment.
Such is God’s desire for us; to die to before we die, so that we may truly live. May we fully apprehend that truth as the ashes are imposed on our foreheads today and begin a right relationship with God. May we leave those burdens that prevent us from dying before we die behind at this alter. Let’s offer those burdens to God, so we may have a holy Lent and a holy life. By doing this, we will be resurrected with Christ on Easter; receiving the precious gift of authentic life that God has given every one of us.