Ashes and Life.

Ash Wednesday
2 Cor 5.20b-6.10; Mt 6.1-6,10-21
9 March 2011
Church of the Holy Communion
Fr. Patrick Allen

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In the most recent issue of the New Yorker, author Meghan O’Rourke has a beautifully written and moving essay reflecting on her beloved mother’s dying and death from cancer.  She writes fondly of her childhood and of her mother’s loving indulgence.

And then she writes,

The summer I was eight, I became preoccupied with the thought that I was going to die. My mother noticed that something was wrong, and would pull me onto her lap and ask me if I was O.K., but I had no words to explain my fear; it seemed too enormous to talk about, or even to write down in my journal. One morning, curled up in my sleeping bag on the couch at our cabin, reading an Agatha Christie mystery, I listened as Liam, playing go fish with my mother, turned to her and said, “I don’t want to die. Do you not want to die? What happens to us when we die?”

And my mother put the cards down and said, slowly, “No, I don’t want to die. But I don’t know what happens to us when we die.”

“It’s scary,” he said.

“Yes, it is,” our mother said calmly. “But it’s not going to happen to you for a long time.”

I was both nauseated and riveted: these were the words I had wanted to say, and couldn’t. Perhaps that was because I knew already that any comfort she could offer would be false.

On this day, this Ash Wednesday, we begin the observance of a holy Lent by confronting the reality that young Liam’s mother so naturally wanted to shield him from, the reality that turned young Meghan’s stomach:  Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.

There is of course a kind of commonsense wisdom in such an annual exercise.  We are largely insulated from death in modern society; it happens away from home and is handled clinically by the professionals to whome we have collectively delegated those tasks (or, perhaps, who have contrived and connived to sell us their services).

And so it may be helpful to engage in this kind of memento mori.  To remind ourselves of what is coming, and so to add a sense of urgency to the days we have, how ever many they may be.  You know what I mean:  Carpe diem, “seize the day!”, as the Roman poet Horace urged, “and put little trust in the future.”  Or, if you prefer your reality therapy in a more prayerful context (I know I do!): Teach me to number my days, O Lord, prays Moses in the 90th Psalm, that I may apply my heart to wisdom.

If that were all we were up to day, I suppose it might still be a thing worth doing, if maybe a little deprssingly so.  A reminder of death does, or should, lead to a certain and real kind of wisdom.  But if that were all we were up to, we might place the day and this dusty rite at just any convenient place in the calendar.  But obviously that’s not the case.  We do this at the beginning of Lent, precisely to make a good and appropriate start to a holy Lent – this season of penitence, prayer, and fasting.

But Lent itself is not just a 40-day period of instensified psycho-social self-help effort:  “In every day, in every way, for 40 days, I’m getting better and better.”  Well, fat chance.  But again, if that’s all we were offering, we could do it any old time.  But of course we’re not.  We observe this Ash Wednesday, and embark together upon this holy Lent, with a particular horizon in view.  We are going somewhere.  We are moving toward the observance of a particular death, on a particular Friday afternoon – a death which would itself have no importance and would long ago have been forgotten had the man involved had the common decency to remain dead.  But Jesus did not.  He gloriously rose again on the third day.  And that’s where we are going; that is where Lent is designed to take us; that is what Lent teaches us to see and to celebrate: eternal life given to us in the victory of Christ over the grave.

Which puts the impostition of ashes today, here at the outset of Lent, in a new light.  It transforms and deepens the wisdom of our self-imposed reminder of death.

Seize the day, indeed.  Apply our hearts to wisdom, absolutely.  But not because life is short and uncertain, but because eternity is nigh, the Kingdom of God is at hand.

In Christ we have infintely better than the dubious and cold comfort offered – though, bless her,  it was all she had to offer – by Meghan O’Rourke’s mother:  “it’s not going to happen to you for a long time.”

We have better.  In Christ we have the victory.  In Christ, today’s ashes and dust are transformed into fertile soil sown with Resurrection, and this life and every day in it is the arena in which we may live the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the grace which has already taken root in our hearts by faith, and which on the last great day will transform our bodies also,  and the perishable will put on the imperishable, and our mortal nature will put on immortality (1 Cor 15.53).

The thing to do then, in this Lent, in this life and every day in it, is to choose life.  Which is another way of saying to repent.  “To be reconciled to God,” as St. Paul urges us in our epistle lesson, to turn from our sins and cling to Christ, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The thing to do then, in this Lent, in this life and every day of it, is to “lay up treasure in heaven,” as our Lord urges us, and to place our hearts and hope there, so that today, even with the dust of death on our foreheads, and everyday, we may “prepare with joy for the Paschal feast,” which is the mystery of eternal life in Jesus Christ.

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