During my time as a hospital chaplain, there was a particular patient, who I’ll call Bob, who was extremely difficult. He was inconsolable, distressed, and incredibly annoying to the doctors and nurses who were constantly called to his room to be asked, over and over again, why nobody would tell him what was wrong with him. Often, when these distressed patients were beyond the medical personnel’s ability (or desire) to handle – which is a nice way of saying that the doctors and nurses just couldn’t deal with them anymore – a chaplain would be called in to have a conversation with the patient, to try and understand what was troubling the patient beyond any physical ailment. I was paged to Bob’s floor, and I could hear him crying out from his room from the moment I stepped off the elevator at the opposite end of the hallway. When I reached the room and introduced myself to Bob, he started talking, almost without taking a breath, in a very agitated manner: “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here, I need some answers, these doctors won’t tell me what’s wrong with me, am I dying? Do I have 6 days? 6 weeks? 6 months? They won’t tell me anything!” A few exploratory questions about his condition revealed that, in fact, Bob knew exactly what was wrong with him and that his condition meant that he probably wasn’t going to live for too much longer, though nobody could tell him exactly how long that would be. We talked about the details he did know, about what was going to happen to him, about the care he would receive, and he grew less and less agitated. As our conversation began to wind down, and it seemed that I’d helped him answer his own questions (and hopefully calmed him down enough to stop paging the nurses every 5 minutes), I stood up to leave, giving him my blessing as I did. As I turned to exit the room, he cried out with despair, “I haven’t talked to my son in 20 years.” I stopped, and turned around to face him again. This, finally, was the reason Bob was upset. He continued, “I gotta call my son. I can’t die without telling him how sorry I am, I can’t die with us not talking. I gotta talk to my son.”
Death is not something we like to think about. I don’t know about you, but when I think about the people I love who have died, it just devastates me all over again. There don’t seem to be lessons to learn, reflections worth pondering. It is just plain painful and sad.
But this is not a day we think about death in general. This is the day the church confronts is with our own death. The reality of our own mortality.
Like Bob, maybe the thought of your death that disturbs you deeply. It holds in front of our eyes all the goals left unreached, dreams unattained, letters never sent, phone calls never made, things never said, regrets that still linger. It reminds us that we tend to operate under the illusion that death is something that happens to other people.
We are horrible, as a culture, at talking about our own death. From Pilates to multivitamins to face cream to the Paleo diet, so much is marketed to us as a means to lasting youth and vibrancy. But we all know, deep down, that’s a farce. Ash Wednesday reminds us, in the simplest of terms, that we are all going to die. I am going to die. You are going to die. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
This day, Ash Wednesday, begins the season of Lent: a season of penitence, self-reflection, and spiritual discipline, aiming for a life that draws us closer to God, and draws God closer to us. We do this, as our prayer book says, in order to prepare ourselves to commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection and rejoice in God’s great love and mercy toward us. We can only truly celebrate the reality of an eternally loving and forgiving God when we take the time to reflect on our own constant need for love and forgiveness. When we acknowledge our own human brokenness, and the ways in which we fall short. When we realize that no matter how hard we try to hide it, or cover it up, we are imperfect creatures, and sometimes, the wrongs we commit, or the wrongs done to us, cannot be made right. No matter how much we try to manage things on our own, we are never without the need for love and forgiveness.
The observation of a holy Lent is an invitation to consider those broken parts of ourselves. Yet the season of Lent is not an invitation to pulverize our mistakes and missteps into dirt and ash, but to realize that the ground on which we tread is already full of the dirt and dust and ash of our own human frailty. We are marked on our foreheads with the very substance we walk on, the very stuff that makes up the ground under our feet, the stuff to which we will return, the stuff that reminds us of our mortality. Dirt, dust, ash.
Yet what Ash Wednesday reminds us of, ultimately, is that our lives belong to God. As one pastor puts it, facing our own mortality allows us to lay down our attempts to manage our own human brokenness, and step into the deep and holy mystery that is the Christian life. Ash Wednesday reminds us there is beauty in our brokenness, and freedom that we don’t have to live up to some earthly falsehood about perfection. It is the declaration that this dust to which we return, this ash from which we are made, is the dirt and dust and ash into which God breathes new life.
That is why we come to the altar twice on Ash Wednesday. The first time is for repentance – to receive ashes. The second time is for forgiveness and wholeness – to receive communion. Because God never lets our brokenness have the last word.
In the words of the pastor and poet, Jan Richardson:
Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?
This is the day we freely say we are scorched.
This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning.
This is the moment we ask for the blessing
that lives within the ancient ashes,
that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth.
So let us be marked not for sorrow.
And let us be marked not for shame.
Let us be marked not for false humility
or for thinking we are less than we are
but for claiming what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff of which the world is made,
and the stars that blaze in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.
We don’t need to be like Bob, waiting to be on death’s door to wake up to the possibilities God has contained for our lives. We begin Lent by recalling our mortality because only by remembering that our lives have an expiration date do we start asking the question, What can the Holy One do with this dust that I am? What can God do with me, now?
So be marked with the dust to which you will return, prepare your heart with repentance and come to the altar to be made whole, and live a life that shows what can happen when God breathes life into dust.