There is something about the experiences I’ve had in life, or my natural bent to be at home in grief, that allows me to be very comfortable with death. It comes with the territory of being a priest, and it was what provided my first nudge toward seminary and ministry. The first time I sat with someone as they walked the thin space between this world and the next, I knew that those types of holy experiences were something to which I was deeply called. Perhaps I’ve always been drawn to it because we know that death is not the end of the story; we know that though we are dying, we are yet alive, as Saint Paul says.
Today, the ashes that glide across our foreheads are not intended to trap us in our eventual demise, but rather a reminder that we live this life in fragile bodies that will return to the very soil from which we came. The sign of the cross that we wear is not to proclaim Christ’s resurrection, but to remember that we, though we are dying, are yet alive in the resurrected Christ. The sign is not to practice our piety before others, but to jar ourselves into awareness as we pass our reflection in the mirror, undeniably marked with this tangible and dusty reminder.
I love this holy day, not just because it begins one of my favorite seasons of the church year and I get to remind people that they are gonna die, but because it invites us into Saint Paul’s unrelenting hope in the face of some insurmountable complications. In the second letter to the church at Corinth, which we heard read today, Paul invites us into the early days of the Christian tradition. And because it always bears repeating, I have a hard-won love and complex relationship with the writings of Saint Paul. I’ve come to listen to his works with an openness that was not present in the churches that used the writings of Paul to silence whole sections of the church, myself and women like me included, but I also deeply love Paul’s intensity and his willingness to ask a lot of people; I am drawn to the ways in which he invites people to live out their faith in a cruciform way.
Usually, that is. I usually love Paul’s intensity and the way in which he upholds that even through afflictions and calamities and sleepless nights he expects us to live our lives in the same way when we are surrounded by patience, kindness, and genuine love. I usually love the way that he sets such a high bar for a life of faith; I usually love to hear this as we begin our Lenten journey, but this year, it hits different, and to be honest, I don’t love it.
This year, I’m struggling with it. I’m struggling with it, because the list of the heavy and hard things sounds so much louder than the hope of the good and righteous things. I believe that though we are dying, we are yet alive, but the heaviness of all the calamities, not just in our community and in the world, but in our personal lives as well, and all of it just seems to make the reminders of death feel a tinge unnecessary this year, even to me, in all my love and holy adoration for our temporal life.
On this day, I don’t need to be reminded that this world is full of sin and death because we see it play across our screens from around the world in seconds; I don’t need to remember that death is real when a war is being waged while children are killed and refugees fleeing. And I struggle with whether the sole intent of this holy day should be for us to remember that we are going to die when death is so present all around us.
Every year, we burn the palms from the Palm Sunday to make the ash, to which oil is then added to make the substance with which we will have the mark the sign of the cross smudged upon our foreheads. Yesterday, as carried the vessel with the ashes into the sacristy, I thought of a video I saw earlier this week. As I looked into the pale gray ash that reminds us that we are going to die, I remembered a video of a woman about my age, sweeping shattered glass and dust inside her apartment after a bombing in Kiev, Ukraine.
I thought of that woman, and the dust that surrounded her. I thought of all the ways in which she need not be reminded that dust we are and to dust we shall return. I thought of how far hope must feel for her, and yet how tightly she clung to it as she sang her country’s national anthem. In that tiny pile of gray dust, I was reminded that we are going to die, yes, but death isn’t the end. And this is where Saint Paul’s words hit me: we are “as dying, and see—we are alive.”
For me, and perhaps for you, the reminder of this holy day does not stop with the reminder that you are going to die, but also that in Christ we are alive. That in our faith we find not only life, but also unrelenting hope that is only found in Christ’s death that defeats all death. Maybe as you receive the imposition of ashes we hold the hope that the sign of the cross bears, and we let it kindle within our hearts a hope that feels impossible for so many of us right now.
And my prayer for all of it is that our holy fast, and the fast of our Lenten season reach not just to the end of our mortal bodies, but that it may remind you that our lives are meant for more than shattered glass and tangible, dusty reminders of the brokenness of our world, but that even in death, even in the death that surrounds us, we are alive in Christ. We are as dying, and see—we are alive.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2022.