Last night my family sat in the corner of a restaurant celebrating my son’s fifth birthday. As we shared our meal we noticed a long line of emergency vehicles creeping along the highway. At first we assumed they were making their way through traffic to an accident somewhere down the road, but there were dozens of ambulances, police cars, and other emergency vehicles in a single line as far as we could see. Then my husband and I recalled that the funeral of a Richardson police officer who died in the line of duty was held earlier in the day.
My eager five-year-old did his best to make sense of our description of a funeral. And then, suddenly before my eyes, my preschooler began to grasp the idea of death for the first time. A friend of his had buried a pet hermit crab a few weeks ago but until now he had never imagined that death could personally affect him. The only person my son knows of who has died is Jesus and, of course, he was resurrected three days later.
Ideally, that’s always how it should be for him, only thinking of death in terms of the hope of the resurrection. But an “always Easter” approach to death will not prepare him to live faithfully when faced with the inevitable pain and suffering of our mortal lives. I told my son the story of the death of my beloved grandfather, what we did to remember him at his funeral, and how he was buried in the ground. Everyone who misses him waits for the day when Jesus will resurrect all those who have died so we can live together forever.
My son who has always loved to picture the resurrection where all Jesus’ friends will live with him forever responded with genuine curiosity and confusion as he realized the dark truth that precedes the resurrection: family will die, friends will die, and even he will die. I imagine that the questions will keep coming for days and I am not sure that either of us are ready for this.
There is always a moment in our Ash Wednesday service when I spot an ash cross drawn on a chubby cheeked toddler playing in the aisle, completely unaware that she is marked for death. Every time I see it I get a lump in my throat as I am forced to acknowledge that none of us will get a pass on death. And avoiding uncomfortable thoughts about death only guarantees that we will not be prepared for it when it comes.
Once a friend of mine from a Christian tradition that does not observe Lent asked me about Ash Wednesday. After a lifetime of seeing people with smudged foreheads running errands and picking up kids from school she wanted an explanation for why I would participate in such a “dead tradition” that seemed morbid and graceless when Jesus has already risen from the dead. I awkwardly stumbled through a weak explanation but later sent her this blessing from the Ash Wednesday liturgy as my best answer.
Almighty God, you have created us from the dust of the earth: bless these ashes, we pray, that they may be for us a symbol of our mortality and a sign of our penitence, that we may remember that it is by your grace alone that we receive the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
This acknowledgment and acceptance of our own death is at the root of our relationship with Jesus. We have no life apart from that which God has given and yet to really experience his grace we must allow ourselves to die: to self, to sin, to rival loves, and to every lie that promises eternal life outside Jesus. So much of living in Christ is learning how to die in Christ.
Most of us are not learning about our own mortality for the first time today but the call of Ash Wednesday is always to stop and remember that we are dying. Today, the holiest thing you can do is remember that our lives our like dust. We are all dying.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.