Ash Wednesday

In recent years, as readers of this blog will know, I’ve become more and more convinced that we need to redeem our days by setting our clocks to the story of Jesus. The Church through the ages has been shaped by marking time through a Christian Calendar rather than by the time given by their surrounding cultures. I’ve written about that in more depth here if you’re interested.

Today is Ash Wednesday, and in 2021 it seems that it is particularly poignant. It is a day where we are invited to “consider our deaths”.

The traditional practice of Ash Wednesday is for a Priest to burn the palm sunday crosses from the year before and then to mark the foreheads of those present with ashen crosses.

It is a strange practise but, like many liturgical practises there is a sermon in the sign. A full year before the celebrations of Palm sunday, the remembering of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, celebrated as a coming liberating King. A year later those same celebratory palms are the ash through which we remember;

“from dust we came and to dust we shall return” 

God’s conquering King, in the eyes of the palm branch wavers, was seemingly conquered by the Roman Empire at the cross just a few days later. 

Many of our premature celebrations turn to dust, but just like the act of baptism represents, God calls us to death in order that we can find life. Lent is a time of remembering that we are dead people walking. 

Lent reminds us that although by the Spirit of God we participate in Christ’s resurrected body we await our own and the renewing of all the cosmos around us. In Lent, we resist our culture’s tendency to rush to end of the story and we reflect on the ‘not yet’ of the Kingdom of God.

The story our cultures tell us often portray a view of life that will never end. But the time of Lent is for Christian’s to take a true life audit and part of that is considering our finiteness, put bluntly taking seriously that one day we will die.

Psalm 90:12 – Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

We have become addicted to racing past grief, distracting ourselves from loss. Our culture teaches us to pick the easy route, and certainly considering our own death is not that. But although death is an enemy of God and one He has and will conquer it does teach us about how to live in this time. Death teaches us humility.

A number of years ago, a 14 year old from the teenage discipleship club we help run in Masiphuemelele committed suicide. The day of his memorial we had planned to begin the Alpha Course with this same community. We decided to go ahead and work through the first session which was “Life: Is this it?” One of the questions was, “If this was your last 24 hours, what would you do with it?” 

Questions like that can provoke our fear, our anxiety, or maybe our ambition, all the things we have yet to do. But Lent is a time to remember our smallness, our finiteness, our need of God and our rememberance that we are dust. The word ‘humility’ comes from the root of humus, which means ground or dust. 

Wise people take time to dwell in the serious, contemplating death takes work. It is true that Jesus offers us abundant life, but he requires that we enter death, His death, and our own in order to truly receive that. 

Maybe you can find a simple way to mark this day around your dinner table, here are some simple ideas;

  • Read Psalm 51 slowly together and then take some time to sit listening to the song below

Finally, you might consider reading this simple prayer/liturgy from the forthcoming prayer book Every Moment Holy, Vol. 2: Death, Grief, and Hope which can be pre-ordered on Rabbit Room:

Children of the Living God,

Let us now speak of dying,
and let us speak without fear,
for we have already died with Christ,
and our lives are not our own.

Our dying is part of the story
that God is telling to us,
and part of the story
that God is telling through us.

It is not a dark and hopeless word
we must take pains to skirt or
mention only in hushed whispers lest
our conversations grow awkward
and uncomfortable.

Rather, death is a present and
unavoidable reality, and one
through which we—the people
of God—must learn to openly
walk with one another.

Yes, it is cause for lament. Death is
a horrible and inevitable sorrow.
It is grief. It is numb shock and
raw pain and long seasons of
weeping and ache. And we will
experience it as such.

But it is more than all of that.

For is is also a baptism,
a prelude to a celebration.

Our true belief that Christ died
and was raised again
promises this great hope:

That there will be a newness of life,
a magnificent resurrection that
follows death and swallows it entirely.

Death will not have the final word,
so we need not fear to speak of it.

Death is not a period that ends a sentence.
It is but a comma,
a brief pause before the fuller thought
unfolds into eternal life.

Beloved of Christ, do not
hide from this truth: Each of
us in time must wrestle death.
In our youth we might have run
in fear from such lament, but only
those who soberly consider their
mortal end can then work backward
from their certain death, and so begin
to build a life invested in eternal things.

We should remember death throughout
our lives, that we might arrive at last
well-prepared to follow our Lord
into that valley, and through it,
further still, to our resurrection.

Death is not the end of life.
It is an intersection—a milestone
we pass in our eternal pursuit of Christ.

Yes, death is an inhuman, hungering thing.
But it is also the pompous antagonist in a
divine comedy. Even as it seeks to destroy
all that is good, death is proved a near-sighted
buffoon whose overreaching plans will fail,
whose ephemeral kingdom will crumble.

For all along, death has been blindly serving
the deeper purposes of God within us—
giving us the knowledge that
all we gather in this short life will soon
be scattered, that all we covet will soon
be lost to us, that all we accomplish by
our ambition will soon be rendered as
meaningless as vapor.

Death reveals the utter vanity of all our
misplaced worship and all our feebly-
invested hopes.

And once we’ve seen, in light of death,
how meaningless all our human strivings
have been, then we can finally apprehend
what the radical hope of a bodily resurrection
means for mortals like us—and how
the labors of Christ now reshape
and reinterpret every facet of our lives,
rebuilding the structures of our hopes
till we know that nothing of eternal worth will ever be lost.

Yes, we are crucified with our Lord,
but all who are baptized into his death
are also resurrected into his life, so that
we live now in the overlap of the kingdoms
of temporal death and eternal life—
and when it is our time to die,
we die in that overlap as well,
and there we will find that our dying has
already been subverted, rewritten, folded in,
and made a part of our resurrection.

Have we not all along been
rehearsing Christ’s death and
his life in the sacrament of his
communion? We have been both
remembering and rehearsing
our union and reunion with him.

O children of God, do you now see?
Your pursuit of Christ has always
demanded a daily dying to your own self,
and to your own dreams.

That final, brief sleep of death is but the last
laying down of all those lesser things, that
you might awake remade, set free, rejoicing
in the glorious freedom that will be yours.

Yes, hate death!

It is an enemy—
but an enemy whose end approaches, and
whose assault can inflict no lasting wound.

Yes, weep and grieve!

But more than that, believe!
The veil is thinner than we know.
And death is thinner still.
It cannot hold any whose names are
dearly known to God. Rejoice in this!
Death is neither a grey void, nor
a dungeon cell—but a door.
And when Christ bids us
pass through at last,
we pass from life to Life.

Amen.

If you’d like to support my reading and writing you can sign up for a fortnightly members-only newsletter The Lectio Letter. You can flick through the archives (one’s without a star are open to anyone to read) to see if it’s something you might be interested in.

2 Comments on “Ash Wednesday

  1. Liam. This is transformational my friend! Printing it.. keeping it… sharing it. Hallelujah!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.