Today is Ash Wednesday. In the Christian tradition it marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading us to Easter. In our best seasons, Christians use this time for a spiritual spring cleaning; a time of added devotions, prayer and scripture reading. Sometimes we give things up to remind us of what Christ gave up for us. Sometimes we take things on as a way of embodying his life and ministry in our lives.
Some Christians do something very strange on Ash Wednesday; something we rarely allow ourselves to do otherwise. We let ourselves come face to face with death. We admit together, for just a moment, that we know we will all die. We allow ourselves to be literally marked with ashes to symbolize the reality that we will all become ashes some day. Isn’t that the strangest thing, especially in our world of heavy denial, perpetual youth and surface living?
Four years ago this week, I lost a friend and a colleague suddenly. Actually, a lot of us lost him together. He was fine one day; working, happy, joking, laughing, planning, dreaming and serving God and, in the blink of an eye, gone. He was Senior Pastor of our large congregation, a significant leader in the larger Methodist church, a truly good guy, father, husband, friend. The loss was huge. The grief ripples ran wide and deep. They still do.
The days and weeks after his death are a blur to me: the prayer vigil we had that Saturday night; our Sunday morning worship services the day after his death where we knew worship needed to somehow go on without him; his large funeral the following Friday with thousands attending; his birthday shortly after that. And then, Ash Wednesday, just a week or so later.
I don’t recall exactly what we said during that Ash Wednesday service. I know we let the familiar Christian rituals carry us through. We marked one another with ashes. We faced death only this time, it was painfully, excruciatingly staring back at us. Yes, you will all die, of course. But then, this, through the ritual, through the ashes, this Word, “So live, live for Me.”
Somehow, some way, through God’s grace and mercy and resurrecting love, we have. We will.
I miss my friend. But what I know is this, he was well acquainted with the truth of Ash Wednesday. He knew about the ashes. He trusted God fully in life and in death. I just know what he would say to us today if he could. “Yes, ashes. Of course you will all die, that’s the point. So, live.”