I imagine many of you, like me, grew up in a tradition where Ash Wednesday was a foreign concept. Perhaps it was something that “those Catholics” did. Through the years, however, this day has become important to me – “those Catholics,” apparently, had great wisdom in their tradition. When we lived in Georgia, we used to go to an Episcopal church where, as a family, we’d receive the imposition of ashes. It was a strange thing to have these ashes crossed onto my forehead and hear the words, “dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” It was stranger still to hear those words pronounced over my wife and especially over our very young children who were kneeling next to us. But on Ash Wednesday, we are met with this sober reminder: you are going to die.
As I’ve thought about today, I wondered – ‘do we need really need Ash Wednesday in the middle of a pandemic?’ I’m convinced, in fact, that we need this reminder now more than ever. I believe this for two reasons. First, because we’ve quickly fallen back into our old patterns of death denial; into believing that we’re immortal.
Back at the beginning of the pandemic, most of us were really quite afraid. We were struck with the realization that we are far more fragile than we had imagined. But over time, some of us – many of us – have grown numb. And now in the middle of a pandemic we see people protesting mask-wearing, and leaning into conspiracies. Most conspiracy theories are based on the idea that it’s a small percentage of people who are dying, and the point, of course, is that we’re not a part of that small percentage. We just want to go on with life as normal – our days filled with a million ways of distracting ourselves from the reality that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
So we come again to remember our own mortality. The point of Ash Wednesday, though, is not to have a morbid celebration. Far from it. It’s to remind us that life is a gift, and that we should not waste this gift. Ash Wednesday actually reminds us that time should be viewed as a gift and not a burden. As the Psalmist says, it is to “teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” This can be quite freeing, actually. When our lives are lived for the higher things instead of the lower things, we can say with the Apostle Paul, that although we have nothing, we, in fact, possess everything. We can live our lives to store up the higher treasures, not the lower treasures that moth and rust destroy. And it’s a reminder that those around us are gifts too. They’re not just there, but have, for a time, come into our lives as gifts to be treasured and handled with care.
But there’s a second reason why we need Ash Wednesday in the midst of a pandemic, and it’s because while many pretend that the percentage of those who die can’t possibly be us, others have realized how quickly that percentage can become us. People are dying. But in the midst of death, Ash Wednesday is a reminder of mortality, not finality. The great poet Malcolm Guite writes,
“There is deep wisdom still in the tradition of ashing. For the ash that is left after purging fires is itself a fertilizer, a life-enabler, a source of new growth; we place these unpromising leavings on the garden and new things bloom. The cross of ash becomes a deeper symbol still, for what is destroyed in that emblem of all our destructiveness is sin itself. In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, God takes the worst we can do to him and turns it into the best he can do for us.”(Guite, A Word in the Wilderness, 8).
In a time of death and dying, we gather not to say that all is lost, but that God has the power to deal with not only death, but the greater problem – sin, of which death is merely a relic (tip of the hat to Bauerschmidt). Death was introduced because of sin, so sin is the greater problem. The prophet Joel writes:
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him…”Joel 2:12-14a
If there is hope for our sin, as the prophet reveals, then there is hope for our death. So let us turn from the things that moth and rust destroy, and lean into the way wisdom through repentance and humility.