Audio is available here: Ash Wednesday
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Grim, sobering words. Words that catch us up short. Sometimes, I try very hard to imagine myself into a parish church in Nairobi or Buganda or Islamabad. Sometimes I try very hard to imagine myself hearing those words that mark the beginning of our Lent observance as part of a culture, as a person, in which death is, often quite literally, just around the corner.
Whether from violence or disease or misfortune, in many countries, for most of our brothers and sisters, death is an everyday event. And when I try to imagine myself into the living space of so many of my brothers and sisters, and try to hear those words from within that space, all that comes to mind is, “How can I ever forget?”
That question, of course, is a sign that I have failed in my imagination. That I have not fully entered into the space that is the life lived by my brothers and sisters. For it means only that I have taken my first-world, privileged perspective and wedged it into a life-space where it does not naturally belong.
Why? Because the notion that death is something to be forgotten, denied, or even—imagine this!—escaped is a uniquely first-world reality. It is one of those “first-world problems” that just about everything from medical technologies to popular entertainment tricks us into believing. We are tricked into hoping that some fortunate few really are going to get out of life, alive. And so we can’t help but pose the rhetorical question.
When you take a person formed by all the messages that surround her to believe that death can be escaped, or almost infinitely postponed and plunk her in a place where death is ever-present, certainly felt if not always seen, the first instinct is going to long for the place from which she came. Long for the opiates that have numbed her to the reality of her own mortality for so long.
So it is with many of us. So it is that, if we really pay heed to the words that mark our beginning of Lent, we are caught up short. For they cut through our denial. They cut through the narcotic numbness, the mindless slumber, and—if only for a brief moment—wake us up! We are, whether we like it or not, going to return to the dust.
At some point—barring something sudden, unforeseen and tragic—the doctors and nurses will unplug the tubes and silence all the “machines that go bing!” At some point, our breath will cease, our brain-function stop, and—if the old theologians are to be believed—our souls will depart from our bodies. We are going to die.
I remember when that light first came on for my son, Calvin. He was about seven and we were reading our devotional for the day at home. We were reading from the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 7. The story of Stephen, the first to identify with Christ even to the point of death. The story of St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr—the martyr, the first martyr, the one whose death was the beginning of the long train of disciples who loved Jesus more than life itself.
As I read the story, I became absorbed in it, so absorbed that I lost myself and my surroundings. I was with Stephen before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem as he re-told the story of Israel as the story of Israel’s rejection of the God who had delivered them from Egypt and persisted with them for so long. I was with him as the Council became enraged at Stephen’s accusation of unbelief and dragged him from the chamber to the street. I could smell the sweat and the anger and the fear as the Council members laid their coats at the feet of a young Pharisee named Saul. I could feel see the stones begin to fall as Stephen prayed the prayers of his Lord as his own—forgive them, and into your hands I commit my spirit.
It was only at the end of the story and looked up that I saw Calvin sobbing in the arms of his mother. “They killed him,” was all he would say. Over and over and over again between the sobs, “They killed him.” Calvin’s world, until that time, had been a world in which the good people won. In which, when things looked their worst, dramatic rescue came. Think Daniel in the Lion’s Den or Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego in the furnace. Think—perhaps this is better—Buzz Lightyear and Woody saving the toys or Marlin finding Nemo and together, rescuing Dory from the fishing net, or the Incredibles destroying Syndrome’s Robot. Rescue always comes. The good guys always win. The story of Stephen was simply unthinkable for my boy. This time, the rescue didn’t come. Nobody came to save Stephen. The stones fell and St. Stephen went down to the dust. They killed him.
And we grown-ups so desperately want to live in Calvin’s world that the story of Stephen, if we read it at all, catches us short, too. And though we might be too emotionally thickened by our years to enter fully into the story as Calvin did, though we might be able to keep ourselves from entering the story, hoping for a different outcome, still, if we read it carefully, thoughtfully, we are caught up short. Here is a man entirely dedicated to the cause of Christ. A man chosen to serve the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. A man whose evangelistic preaching led many to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and that God had raised him from the dead. And God didn’t rescue Stephen.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
The story of the last-second rescue from the clutches of death is a great story. It is re-told by Hollywood in every movie that has a happy ending. Which is to say, every movie. But at the end of the day, it’s a lie. Buzz and Woody will eventually end up in a landfill. Mr Incredible, Elastigirl, and their children will someday face a villain who will best them. Marlin and Dory and even Nemo will eventually become food for sharks or barracudas. That’s how all stories end. Stephen’s story may well catch us up short, but at least it’s the truth.
We are going to die. Ash Wednesday confronts us with that truth every year.
It is part of the good news—the Gospel—this news that we will die. The challenge for us is hearing it as good news.
We fear the isolation of death—it is the one experience everyone goes through alone. “You got to walk that lonesome road. Ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you. You got to walk it by yourself.” Says the old spiritual. We fear the final severing of our ties to our friends and our community that death brings. We fear that, after all our life’s work, our life will have counted for nothing in the great scheme of things. That we will be forgotten. I mean think about it. How many of you can name all four of your grandparents? How about all eight of your great-grandparents? Most of us will be forgotten within only three generations. And if we are the fortunate few who are able to cheat the forgetfulness of our descendants by putting our names on various plaques and places in our city, that only delays things.
The great irony of our culture is that as we have tried to postpone, deny, refuse death at every turn, we have succeeded in increasing those things that we fear most about death. We are increasingly atomized—cut off from friends and family. We are—far too many of us—already experiencing the lowest circle of hell described by Dante—a frozen space in which each poor soul is incapable of seeing the others.
Here, just here, is where the good news of Lent really is good news.
For the believer in Jesus, to be reminded that we will go down to the dust is not a final capitulation to eternal isolation and extinction. It is to be reminded that even that dust is beloved by God. Even in the grave, we have not fallen away from the God who loves us. How do we know? Do we know because Christians have a theory about the eternal nature of our souls? No. Do we know because Christian people have had near death experiences and have returned to describe for us their visions of heaven? No. We may well have immortal souls—while Christian piety is effusive about this, it is striking just how quiet the Christian Scriptures and Christian theology are—and on that subject, I will say no more. Near-death-experiences are fascinating to me, but I don’t believe they give is a window into the after life. No, the Christian is to hear the announcement of our mortality as the announcement of the good news that even in our mortality, we belong to God not because we have a secret explanation of what happens five seconds after we die.
For God has not given us an explanation. He has, instead given us his Son.
Remember Stephen? He died, but not in despair for he died with a vision of Christ filling his gaze. Stephen died seeing not the Sanhedrin, but Christ. Christ standing, passing judgment on Stephen’s killers, standing to welcome his martyr, standing to say to all the holy angels and to his Father, “This one, Stephen, belongs body and soul to me.” For Christ has gone ahead of us into death—into even the one great death of the sinner—he descended into hell, says the Creed—and because he has, we will not go to the dust alone. He was raised to life for our justification and because he was we know that God, and not death, gets to write the final word over our lives. Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, we confess with the New Testament, and so we know even the forgetfulness of history will be overcome. Even our dust is the dust God has chosen to love. Even this dust is not our end. God is.
So, how does the African or Pakistani or South Asian Anglican hear the words, “Remember that you are dust,” when they are surrounded by the reality of the dust of death all the time? In my better imaginative moments, I believe he hears them as the promise of God that even this dust is beloved. Even this dust is redeemed. Even this dust is reconciled to God. And from that perspective, perhaps, we first-worlders can learn again what it means to live.