My First Ash Wednesday

Ash WednesdayToday I attended my first Ash Wednesday service.

For a guy raised within a Christian heritage that paid minimal attention to the Christian calendar, this was noteworthy.

At a local Anglican Church, I joined a “crowd” of fewer than twenty. For a moment, I wondered if I was in the wrong place. The masses pour forth when the life of Easter is dished out; I suppose it is expected that discussions of dying will thin the crowd.

Service opened with this prayer together:

Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our brokenness, may obtain of You, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Fire and Ashes

After further Scriptures and prayers, the priest shared a few thoughts. He highlighted the season of Lent as a time of spiritual cleansing, a period during which we make choices on how to create extra space: for God’s special arrival and for our sharpened attention.

In speaking of the ashes about to be smudged on each forehead, he pointed out that the upcoming Easter message of resurrection, by its nature, must be preceded by a message of death. Crosses comes before crowns, and fires come before ashes.  Steelmakers use repeated burnings to strengthen and solidify their metals. The blacksmith known as Yahweh subscribes to a similar strategy. People of faith are purged toward purity and hardened toward holiness through seasons of fire. To live out Lent is to willingly enter the flames. It is to mark oneself with ashes, convinced that every burn of self-death will be honored by the One in whom abundant life dwells.

All the Same

There is a beautiful solemnity in the imposition of ashes. The priest approached each of us, smudging (or “imposing) a dull black cross on our foreheads as he spoke one simple sentence, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” I watched the first worshipers receive this moment, eyes closed or heads bowed or eyes locked on the priest’s. My turn came and went, and by the end of the semi-circle, all of us bore the mark of mortality. The woman to my right would likely dine at a soup kitchen later that day. The gentleman to my left was a federal judge from Ottawa, in town for the week. The priest himself had been marked by a church member. High and mighty, meek and meager–all lines are erased when dust and ashes are the theme. Most in the room wore silver hair that betrayed the fact that they were further from the dust-birth than I was, but charcoaled crosses now reminded that none of us knew who was closest to their dust-return.

One might take exception to the Ash Wednesday mantra. “I’m not just dust; the part of me that is really me isn’t that.”  True enough, but even the objection serves to highlight the point: None of us contain life. We do not generate it or guarantee it. There is One from whom it flows; He is its fountain and its founder.

And if the wearing of a greyed facial mark helps drill that in, then smudge up, my friends!

“Dad, What’s a Funeral?”

funeral flowersA few Sundays back, I was upgrading my wardrobe from the shirt and pants that I had worn to morning service to a full-blown suit and tie for an afternoon funeral. My four-year-old asked me why I was dressing up. I told her that I was going to a funeral, and in vintage four-year-old fashion, she asked the perfect question…

“Dad, what’s the funeral?”

Is it wrong that I wanted to provide her with a definition that made no mention of death, for fear of not knowing how to answer the next inevitable question?

Thoughts around mortality have rolled through my head more lately than usual.  Some of it is involvement in recent funerals. Some of it is the experience of raising small children and noting how very quickly time seems to pass.  The math doesn’t lie, nor do my joints.  Time is marching on.

Andrew Peterson, on his fantastic new album, says it this way:

And we just can’t get used to being here,
Where the ticking clock is loud and clear,
Children of eternity,
On the run from entropy.

Whatever the specifics, a couple observations linger:

1) Dust to dust is indeed the human reality, and my someday-dust-but-not-yet mind can hardly fathom the concept.  How can it be that friends I enjoyed only weeks ago can no longer exist in the form which I always enjoyed them?  We spoke and laughed and hugged, yet today, all physical traces of that speaking mouth, laughing voice, and embracing frame have vanished.  And my head shakes.

2) My struggle to grasp our own ends pushes me to consider the greater mystery of God’s endlessness.  The Bible portrays the reality that the my bookends of birth and death are merely tiny points upon the infinite shelf of God. Before me and after me, He is the sea in which my life floats.  As Scripture describes it, He goes before me and follows behind me, all the while His hand is upon me.

At times, the sting of death can seem very real.  It cuts through any veneer we have layered on.  It can unnerve us, even undo us.  Andrew Peterson’s lyrics above are affirmed as true: We do not know what to do with death, so much so that one wonders if our original design truly included this wretched feature.

pauseBut as we know, loss feels plenty real.  Sorrow can strike with staggering force.  There is no evading this enemy.  That said, perishing carries a unique perk.  This is why a friend of mine calls death “the great interrupter”.  Nothing hits the pause button as forcefully as death.  Assessments occur; inventory is taken.

In those painfully still moments, sometimes we step back from the canvas just enough to observe the frame on the painting.  And it is then that we observe that life–even in its dust-to-dust nature–is encompassed by One larger than the cosmos.

Surrounded by such loving grandeur, one can indeed walk through the valley of the shadow of death without fear.

YOUR TURN: How have/would you handle discussing death with kids? What have you learned from your run-ins with mortality? Your input makes this post better!

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