For the first few years of our marriage, Elizabeth worked full time as a nurse in a nearby hospital. Like most hospital nurses, she worked twelve-hour shifts, which meant that she usually left before I went to work and came home after I did. Occasionally, when a parishioner was in the hospital, I would swing by her unit and say hello, but, on days when she worked, we expected not to see each other until late in the evening.
I remember sitting at the dinner table one Wednesday night—just the two of us—and reflecting on the nature of her job. It was Ash Wednesday, and she had gone to the hospital at six-thirty that morning and had not come home until almost eight o’clock at night. She asked how the three services at church had gone—the inquiry was her way of participating in the day’s sacred liturgy—and I told her how sorry I was that she could not take part in one of the services. I wondered aloud what it would be like to journey through the forty days of Lent without beginning with the ashen cross—the sign that we are dust and to dust we shall return. That proclamation conveys a sentiment not easily embraced in our contemporary society.
We live in a culture that avoids death at all costs. As if to deny the obvious, our obituaries proclaim that a loved one has “passed on” or “left this world.” We joke about celebrating our thirty-ninth birthday well into our fifties, and plastic surgeons help us pull it off (sort of). Oncologists offer rigorous rounds of chemotherapy to people in their eighties—often at the insistence of their patients or their patients’ families. I frequently watch hospital-bound parents struggle to tell their children that they are ready to die and children struggle to give their parents permission to do just that. Last week, in a conversation about a family member’s illness, a parishioner remarked that the prognosis didn’t look good, to which I replied, “I guess that’s eventually true for all of us.” Death is an unavoidable reality, yet we try our best to hold it at bay…except on Ash Wednesday.
Once a year, we come to church and kneel at the altar rail to have the ashen cross marked on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the minister says. In a bold defiance of our cultural and biological impulses, we say those words to every man and woman and child who comes forward. Even the youngest infant, whose life has just begun, is reminded of the inevitability of his or her death. One day, we will take our last breath, and our hearts will beat their last beat, and time will take its toll on us, and we will return to the dust from which we were made. Like it or not, for humankind the mortality rate is 100%, and I believe that our faith in God depends upon our willingness to embrace that fact.
We cannot know what it means for God to promise us new and everlasting life until we acknowledge the power that death otherwise would have over us. We cannot behold the light of the resurrection until we stand in the shadow of the cross. We cannot experience the power of God’s saving love until we confront the fullness of our mortality. Ash Wednesday is not merely the beginning of Lent. Even if you ignore the forty days of this Lenten journey and skip ahead to Easter, allow yourself to linger in the magnitude of your mortality. On this one day, stare at yourself in the mirror and remember that someday you will die. Until you come face to face with that truth, you cannot have the soul-filling hope that defies even death itself—the hope of new life in Jesus.
This year, our local hospital has agreed to let me come and offer ashes to the staff who will be working all day tomorrow and whose schedules will not allow them to go to church. Think about the powerful juxtaposition of those two images—in the place where lives are saved someone comes to proclaim the reality of death. If anyone appreciates the frailness of life, however, it is one who works in a hospital, and I doubt that those who work in an organization that calculates its mortality rate need much reminding about it. I am convinced, however, that there is comfort in accepting that fact, and I hope tomorrow’s ashes are received as a sign of hope, faith, and encouragement.
Ashes to Go is an increasingly popular movement that seeks to take the experience of Ash Wednesday to highly trafficked areas so that passersby can pause for a “contemporary moment of grace.” In one way, that is what my time at the hospital will be—a quick chance for individuals to experience the message of our mortality. But I know that the ashen cross alone is not a full experience of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, and I beg everyone to make time to come to church. But I also know how rarely we have the opportunity to confront our mortality, so, even if it is only in a passing moment, I want to do everything I can to invite people into the life-saving, life-giving economy of salvation: it only in dying that we are reborn to eternal life.