Last night, I conducted my eight Ash Wednesday service. I still feel like an utter novice at it. It feels like I am playing make believe, engaging in rites and rituals that I have no business attempting. Last night, incredibly, I forgot my lines (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return… except, when you forget, evidently!). Each year, I make a mess of producing the ashes. I dutifully save last year’s branches from Palm Sunday, but in the process of burning and oiling them I usually end up with a chunky mess filled with inconvenient strands of palm branch. One year, on a particularly windy Ash Wednesday, I almost burned my back deck down. I’m only half-joking. All in all, not the most impressive Ash Wednesday record.
Yesterday, I commissioned my seventeen-year-old son to burn the palm branches for me. He was bored and I figured he couldn’t possibly do a worse job than I often do. And my unsullied optimism was gloriously vindicated. He carefully (and safely) burned the branches in a pail, then began to patiently sift the remnants through a sieve, crushing a few remaining strands into ash, sifting again, crushing again. In the end, he “tested” the finished product out on his forearm, comparing ash+oil, ash+oil/water, and ash+water only to see which produced the blackest, stickiest ashen cross (option 1, it turns out). We marched off to church with a jar full of the best ashes I’ve had in eight years.
As I watched the branches burn, it occurred to me that there was something highly symbolic about the process. The palm branches that symbolized the expectant hosannas of an eager crowd welcoming a king now become the ashes of repentance. Smooth green branches became first brittle and brown and then black ash. It symbolized, for me, the way that our we get Jesus wrong. Like the people in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we don’t really want a suffering king. We don’t want to go with Jesus where he is going. We don’t want to take up our cross and follow.
We don’t want to die.
We don’t want to die biologically—we cling to life because death frightens us and because we know, deep down in our bones, that we were created for life and not death. But we also don’t want the deaths that come along the journey of life. The death of unrealized ambitions. The death of one-too-many failures. The death of the hopes and dreams we have or had for our kids. The death of relationships. The death of faith communities that once sustained us. The stealthy little incremental deaths that come with aging. The death of unexplainable and seemingly unredeemable suffering. The death of tragedies or diagnoses that change the entire course of our lives from that point onward. The death of learning how to let go of what we instinctively cling to in our thirst for the fullness of life.
In John’s gospel we read, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This is a deep and paradoxical truth of the Christian life. Relinquishing is the path to receiving. Repentance is the path to freedom. Self-denial is the path to fulfillment. And ultimately, as Francis of Assisi puts it in his famous prayer, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” This was true for Jesus and it is true for those of us who follow after him.
The life we long for comes not by avoiding death but by facing it squarely, lamenting it, feeling its pain, and going through it. It’s not easy to face death—whether big “D” death as in the end of our biological lives or the little “d” deaths that we experience along the way. But this is our path. As Christians, this is our pattern. We don’t just say, “Well thanks, Jesus, for doing all of the hard stuff for us” and blithely whistle away until kingdom come; we realize that we are called to take up our cross and follow where he went and where he goes still.
Ash Wednesday is a service of honest lament. This is true. But I am convinced that a word of hope is never out of place when Christians gather together. And the word of hope, on this night where we face our mortality and our sinfulness—the deep truth that we must never, ever forget, is that as Christians we do not face death alone. We worship as Lord and Saviour the One who has gone through death ahead of us, on behalf of us, and who has conquered what Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 calls “the last enemy.” We are accompanied, through our little “d” deaths along life’s way and in the face of the big “D” death that is coming, by Jesus.
Jesus, the one for whom death was not a tragic end, but a glorious beginning. Jesus, the one for whom death was a means of extending his arms in the sacrificial embrace of all sinners. Jesus, the one who refuses the final word to death, no matter how it might sometimes seem to us. This is the one whose mark we bear. This is the one we face death with. And this is the one who will bring us out the other side of all our little “d” deaths and big “D” deaths to life everlasting.
My son was the last one to receive the ashes last night. He wasn’t sure he was going to come up before the service. I told him there was no pressure, but I’d be glad if he did. And so there he was, all 6’9 of him, looking down on me, sheepishly pulling his long hair back for the imposition of the one whose mark we bear. I put the cross on his forehead. I said, “Hey, you wanna do me while you’re here?” He stuck his finger in the oily ash he had made and smeared a big cross on his dad’s forehead, grinning as he said, “Remember you’re dust and to dust you’ll return.”
And I remembered.
The preceding is modified version of the Ash Wednesday meditation I delivered last night at Lethbridge Mennonite Church.