Ash Wednesday Meditation
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Psalm 51: 1-17
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is one of the most commonly read passages on Ash Wednesday. I have often found it strange that – so soon after we read these words about not looking dismal and disfiguring our faces – we undergo this solemn ritual of marking ourselves with the sign of ashes, as an acknowledgement of the reality of death, and the inevitable return of our bodies to the dust and ashes of the earth.
So how do we reconcile this simple ritual with the Gospel text that we read in this service today? How do we enter into this Lenten season, with these visible signs, in a way that does not lead to the dismal and hypocritical external signs of piety that Christ warned against?
One way for us to explore this question is by asking ourselves what spirit is meant to inform and shape our Ash Wednesday observances, what spirit is meant to accompany us into the season of Lent, and perhaps what spirit is meant to be present within us whenever we confront the powerful reality of death.
The Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film, last year, was awarded to a Japanese film called “Departures”. The story focuses on the experiences of a young man named Daigo Kobayashi, who loses his job as a cellist in Tokyo when the orchestra that he is playing with closes down. He returns to his own small village with his wife, and looks for work. Through a slight misunderstanding of the nature of the job that he is applying for, he ends up working with a man who ceremonially prepares the dead for their placement in coffins. Surprisingly, Kobayashi finds great meaning in the work, and in some ways discovers his true vocation. Unfortunately, because he feels a slight sense of shame about the work – and the meaning that he finds in it – he tries to hide, from his wife, what the nature of his work is. When she finds out, she is initially repulsed by the idea, and considers leaving him.
In a very emotionally charged scene, she confronts him, and demands to know why he will not quit and find a ‘normal’ job.
“Normal?” he responds, and then reminds her that his work is rooted in one of the most normal experiences that exists. He will die; she will die; all of their friends; all of their family; everyone will die. What could be more normal than preparing bodies for burial?
As the film reminds us, however, the confrontation with death rarely feels like a normal part of life, an experience to be accepted in the way that we accept the other ‘normal’ experiences of human life, like breathing, eating, or sleeping.
To the contrary, there are many different emotions that can swirl through us when we find ourselves journeying through what the Psalmist called the “valley of the shadow of death”.
For many, it is sadness that meets them in the presence of death.
This year, sadness is an emotion that is very close to my own family.
Yesterday was my mother’s seventieth birthday. As many of you know, she was diagnosed, over a year ago, with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a disease that, while not affecting a person’s mind, affects the other systems of a person’s body, eventually rendering a person a conscious captive in the confining prison of their own body. Over the course of the last few years, my mother has lost her ability to speak, she can no longer eat, her neck and shoulders are now becoming quite frail and stooped, and she is increasingly unsteady on her feet. Even though we continue to pray for her, she herself would admit that there is a possibility that yesterday may have been her final birthday celebration.
Both in the life of the person who is experiencing that reality, and in the lives of those who love them and care for them, there is a great sadness in the face of such a difficult reality, and in the inevitability of the fate that lies before them.
But sadness is not the only emotion that confronts us in the presence of death. Horror and frustration also meet us, as we have been so frequently reminded as we have witnessed the terrible events in Haiti. The wailing cries of parents looking for their children in the devastated streets of Port au Prince, the great questions that we have all pondered in relation to the reasons for such tragedy, and the frustration that the people of Haiti have felt, and will feel as they seek to rebuild their lives and their country remind us of the horror and frustration that so often meets us in the presence of death.
For others, death evokes great anger. The brutalities that we have learned about, over the past week, in relation to the allegations about the serial killings committed by a high ranking member of the Canadian military cannot help but fill us with a great anger. In that situation, or when we see the devastating effects of death meted out upon some innocent person or group, we have all, at one point or another, likely railed in anger against God, or the universe, or the sometimes seemingly capricious and vicious brutality of existence.
For still others, the reality of death inspires lament -- that great weariness of the soul that gives voice, as do so many of the Psalms and the biblical book of Lamentations, to the very human need to cry out in powerless frustration at the difficulties that we sometimes encounter on this mortal journey.
So many emotions and experiences meet us in the presence of death – sadness; anger; horror; frustration; lament; and these are only a few of the many dimensions of the complex experience that meets us in the presence of death.
In the face of these difficult emotions, we can understand why the experience of pondering and meditating upon death might inspire a person to feel rather dismal, perhaps to disfigure their faces, and to display to others the difficult emotions that swirl within them. We can understand why such challenging realities can motivate people to want to cut themselves off from the joys of life, to fast, and to send very visible signals to others that they are experiencing these difficult emotions.
But even as we acknowledge, and experience the complexities meet us in the presence of death, our faith calls us, and perhaps even dares us, to confront death with a different spirit.
That is, to be a follower of Jesus Christ invites us, even in the presence of death, to live in hope.
Today marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which is the forty-day period leading up to the events that we will remember on Good Friday. It is traditionally a season for reflection, for repentance, for remembering the final journeys of Christ’s life, and for preparing ourselves to stand, once again, at the foot of the cross.
Although Lent is often viewed as a solemn time, such seriousness need not be the only way that we enter into and mark this Lenten season. This year, I would invite us to enter into this season of Lent, not in a spirit of dismal, disfigured, somber solemnity – but rather with the reminder, from our Gospel lesson, that to be a follower of Jesus Christ means that we confront even the most difficult parts of human life with hope.
Such hope does not negate the reality, nor the legitimacy, of any of these other emotions. It is possible to be sad, to angry, to be frustrated, to be horrified, even to lament – and still to live in hope.
So wear these ashes today, not as a way of showing how
dismal and depressed that you are about the reality of death – instead, wear
them as a sign of hope. Wear them as a reminder, to yourself, and to those who
ask you about them, of the hope to which we have been called in Jesus Christ.
Wear them as a daring rebuttal to death’s proud and seemingly ultimate triumph
over life. Wear them to remind the world that these mortal bodies, formed from
the dust of the earth and the ashes of a million dying stars, are vessels for an
eternal life that is born within us.
Wear them because you know that the journey of Lent does not end in the anguish of a death on a crude wooden cross; to the contrary, the journey of Lent leads us to the wondrous mystery of empty tomb.
Thanks be to God.