Ash Wednesday is as different as it comes.
On Ash Wednesday we use words not heard in ordinary conversation, like “wretchedness” to describe our condition. In a few moments, we will have grimy ashes smeared on our forehead. We will hear “from dust we come and to dust we return.”
It just doesn’t get more different than that.
On the face of it, the words we use are not exactly the most comforting, joyful words in the English language, or in the Christian religion, or for that matter, in any religion. This is not a warm and fuzzy feast day we are celebrating today.
In all candor, “To dust I shall return” is not something I particularly like to think about as I go through the daily drumbeat of my life. There are no Christmas trees or Easter lilies today.
Today is the day when we stand and look squarely in the face of our own certain death.
What we do today, and what we are asked to think about today, is not only different, it is as countercultural as it gets.
Our culture works overtime to insulate us from death. We are bombarded daily with the message that we can endlessly stall off death with luxury cars or extravagant clothes or botox, or with a bottle or a pill or the perfect job.
Underlying our culture is a deep fatalism: That nothing we do will change anything – so we may as well grab all we can get until our luck runs out: Life is a stall game.
We don’t even like the word “death” or “dying” in our culture; we use euphemisms like “passing away” or simply “passing” or “parting.”
We rarely die at home, we segregate death into nursing homes and hospitals. We sanitize and domesticate death into oblivion to make it clean, two dimensional.
Our culture takes all the soul out of death.
Not all people in our world sanitize death the way we do. In Mexico, on the Day of the Dead, people parade through the streets with skeleton masks and bring feasts to their dead relatives in the graveyards.
In Louisiana, where my wife’s Cajun relatives live, they regularly hold picnics and outdoor dances in the town cemetery so that all of their dead friends and relations can be part of the festivities. They live St. Paul’s declaration that “love never ends.”
And, here on Ash Wednesday, we do something very different. We celebrate our own death before it happens. And by so doing, we proclaim our defiance of death.
Today, with ashes on our forehead, we proclaim that eternal life begins right now, and that although the death of our physical bodies will touch us in this mortal life, there is more to life than what we see now.
As Paul reminds us, “see, now is the day of salvation!”
Not tomorrow or the next day. Today.
On Ash Wednesday, we reach across the horizon of time and space and touch those who have gone before us and who are still with us, even though, for a little while, we cannot see them.
We celebrate with them that there is more to our existence than what we see now.
That is the treasure Jesus speaks of, and that is where our heart should be.
If we can catch a glimpse of our death in the ashes today, maybe we can see that our own death does not separate us from each other, but binds us together in the future that Christ has promised for all of us.
But things we do get in the way of our living into that promise.
That is why Ash Wednesday begins this season of Lent, set for personal introspection and the “giving up” of those things that get in our way of experiencing the fullness of God’s gift of life.
It is a time for self-examination, for working on our physical and spiritual health and looking into our deepest self for the God within us.
Also do something more. Look outside yourself for the God all around you. Do not simply withdraw, but look for the Christ in everyone you meet and in everything you do.
Saint Thomas Aquinas once observed that we should think of our souls differently than we do. Instead of seeing our soul as inside our body, we should see our bodies as inside of our soul.
That is another way of saying our soul is bigger than our mortal bodies, and our souls reach outside ourselves to touch other souls.
And that makes Lent something more than about me personally, but really about all of us together. If we can embrace a Holy Lent that is both inside us and beyond ourselves, may we can see that the hunger and pain of the world is ours, too.
I would suggest we can start here today by embracing our own death with hope. We can declare that death is not the end of the story, not for us, not for those we love, not for anyone.
If we can embrace this kind of hope, maybe we can find a way to embrace all people – all who are alive today, all who are beyond this horizon, and all who are yet to come – and see them as individuals who are connected to us.
By embracing our own death with hope, we can stand in communion with all people as fellow human beings who are truly loved by God. We can become the brothers and sisters to each other that God has intended us to be, on earth as it is in heaven.