“From dust you came and to dust you shall return …”
Every year, at the end of Ash Wednesday, I think the same basic thing. ”Well that was weird.” But, I also seem to appreciate it more every year. Every year, it’s tense, awkward, and I get really sullen right before the service, primarily because I don’t want to stand up there and tell people they’re gonna die. Why? It kills the mood. It doesn’t help me win friends and influence people. And, I don’t like to deal with that news myself.
Why is the church so odd? Why do we pick one day of the year to get up in each other’s faces, smudge foreheads with dirt, and speak bluntly of our shared mortality? “You, my friend, are gonna be worm food ….” So strange.
I’ve been to countless funerals as a family member and in the pastor-ish role, and I’m always fascinated by the ways we try to soft-pedal death. The phrases “passed away” or “passed on” have always interested me. As a kid, I used to wonder about that language.
No, she didn’t “pass away.” No, he didn’t “pass on.” He’s dead. She’s dead. Boom. Let’s tell the truth here, please, because pretending helps no one.
I actually appreciate the fact that on Ash Wednesday, I don’t hear, “Hey there, friend … just want to gently remind you that someday you are gonna ‘pass away.’” I appreciate the fact that the church tells me the truth.
I need to be reminded that I’m not a big deal (it’s hard to hear, but it is oh -so-true). I need to be told to get over myself. I need to get perspective. The traditional Ash Wednesday reading from Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 is always a helpful reminder to keep my ego and need for validation in-check.
And the truth is, I need to hear that whole “you’re not as big of a deal as you think you are” message more than just one day of the year.
Nothing helps me get perspective faster than hearing the news that at the end of the day, I am a speck. A speck in time, a speck of dust, a part of creation and its life cycle. Soon-to-be compost. You get the picture …
I hear that news and realize that the petty stuff I cling to is pretty trivial. I realize that what I think really matters … well … most of it doesn’t all that much.
I realize that for someone who detests whining, I have my own ways of whining and feeling sorry for myself way too much. I realize that I need to focus more on being and less on doing. I realize that I find my worth primarily in things that also are fleeting and temporary. I realize that I need to see a bigger picture. I realize that, in the words of my favorite poet Mary Oliver, I only get “one wild and precious life.” Ash Wednesday forces me to ponder what I will do with the gift of my life. It enables me to be honest about my humanness, smallness and mortality so that I can be set free to fully live. Facing death sets us free to live more fully and freely … funny how that happens, huh? Let’s ponder these questions together on the first day of our Lenten Journey:
How might an honest acknowledgement of your mortality, humanity, and eventual death actually set you free to fully live?
In the words of the poet Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”