Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Ash Wednesday is always a sobering occasion, to walk around with a reminder of one’s mortality inscribed–albeit temporarily–on one’s forehead. Ashes suspended in oil cling to my skin and I resist the urge to wipe them away as though I could avoid thinking about reminders of death so easily.
There’s been much social media chatter and headlines this past week around the novel coronavirus that has jumped borders and leaves the entire globe poised for a potential outbreak. The anxiety I sense from some friends and acquaintances is very high, especially as I think many can agree, our government is unprepared in this political moment to organize a response if it becomes needed.
And here we are, as branches of the church that observe Lent, walking around with black smudges on our heads declaring the reality of death for ourselves and any who might see us today.
Where’s the hope in that?
An invitation to a Holy Lent is, as one of the priests at my church, Lissa Smith, preached this afternoon, “a recalibration that leads not only to a Holy Lent but a holy life.” Another pastor friend, Megan Westra, recounted in her Lenten newsletter a near brush with death a family member had recently experienced and what that does to be living in the daily reality of possible impending death.
And yet our lives still need to be lived. Death is the counterpoint, the inevitable period that all of us face and the reality is we have no idea when that period will come. For most of us it will be in old age, but that isn’t guaranteed to any of us. We brush it aside and we ignore it until we can’t.
Or until we go to church in the middle of a dreary gray Wednesday and receive the reminder of our deaths on our forehead so we can walk around like individual sign-acts for the rest of the day announcing that each day is a gift, for tomorrow is promised to none of us.
Gee, Anna, I thought you said you had some hope in the middle of all of this.
And yet I think there is hope in the middle of this. Hope isn’t needed where certainty exists. Where we are certain of things to come, we don’t hope, we know. Hope is needed when the future is uncertain. And hope is here in the imposition of the ashes where they are a sign of both our mortality and a remembrance that we have been given life eternal through Jesus. It is, as Lissa said, “…the reminder that God made me, and God will take me back. It is a reminder that we live, we will die, and we will be resurrected.”
She also pointed out a principle of mindfulness: “That which we practice grows stronger.”
So in the face of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, I think the call to all of us this Lent is to practice hope. And practice as that great spiritual advisor, Pabbi Troll, said in Frozen 2, when it looks like there is no future, all you can do is the next right thing.
Reading any of our history as humans reveals both the beauty that humans are capable of and the brutality. Life on this green and blue globe has never been peaceful nor has it been free of tragedy. All we can do is the next right thing and make our Lenten fast one that is the fast the Lord has chosen: “to loose the bonds of injustice… to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke… …to share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (Is. 58:6-7).
There is freedom in embracing the inevitability of our own mortality and determining to do our best during the one thing we do have some say over–how we live.