Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

February 17, 2010

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21
When a Roman was made an Emperor, a simple proverb was spoken into his ear. Momento mori, they said to him—which means “bear in mind that you will die.”

Today—Ash Wednesday—is a time for me to preach about a subject I actually enjoy to preach about. Now I know that my confession to do might label me as a bit morbid (which those who know me know I have a tendency to be sometimes), but I do like to preach about momenti mori—or remembrance of death.

In the day—we’re talking the Medieval and Renaissance day—it was common practice for people to keep some kind of momenti mori around—a reminder of death. Often, that was a human skull- a real human skull. Of course, when you think of it, what makes a better reminder of death than a skull? In those days, one was encouraged to look at the skull as one would look into a mirror, realizing that what one was looking at was really themselves. To some extent, as morbid as it might seem, I think it wouldn’t hurt us to think about and ponder such things in our own lives.

In our lives, we do go about oblivious to death. We go around as though we are invincible, that we are eternal, that this moment in which we are living will last forever. As much as we might wish for that and hope for that, the fact is, it is not the case. We don’t realize that we are bones and ash essentially.

This service this evening is really, in a sense, our Momento mori. In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die. It’s sobering, but it’s what we are reminded of this evening and throughout this season of Lent. We will stop breathing. We will die. Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by burying in the ground, or by being cremated.

Today I had my seventh funeral since December. In these last few months I have presided over embalmed bodies and cremated bodies. And doing so certainly puts into perspective the fact that we are all physically disposable. With cremation so prevalent these days, our momemto mori is not so much a human skull anymore. Our momento mori is nowadays an urn of ashes.

This was driven home to me eight years ago in a very clear way. Eight years ago this coming Sunday, I was diagnosed with cancer. I can tell you that that Lent was one of the most difficult Lents of my entire life. But it was also, I have to say, one Lent in which the real meaning of this season was driven home for me. As I went through the shock of diagnosis, the emotional and physical roller coaster of treatment, I found myself thinking a lot about the fact that I will one day die. I thought about things like the disposition of my body.

And I thought about after that. I thought about where I was going and what that place toward which I was going was going to be like. I thought about my relationship with God, about how faithfully (or unfaithfully) I had followed Jesus in my life. And I thought about Jesus’ own encounter with his mortality in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Sometimes, as horrible as experiences like cancer are, they can be gateway events. They can be events in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives on the world and our relationships with God.

That essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves and our relationship with God. It isn’t easy to do. It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives and in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be buried or burned to ashes. It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end. It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we should not allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless. Yes, our mortality is frightening. Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that the life we, at this moment, find so normal and comfortable will one day end.

But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation. It is a preparation for the glory of Easter. And in that way, also, our lives as Christians also lead. It would be depressing and bleak if the skull was the end of our story. It would be sad and sorrowful if all we are reminded of when we ponder the urn is the finality of this life. It would be horrible if we were not able to see the momento moris of our lives as gateways to something larger and more wonderful.

But for us, death is a gateway. Death does lead not to eternal non-existence, bur rather to eternal existence. The darkness of death leads to the glorious light of Easter. What I like about Lent is that it shows us that, even though we are living in the glorious light of Easter, bestowed on us at our Baptism, it’s not always light and flowers and happiness all the time.

If our Christianity faith was only that, it would be a frivolous faith. It wouldn’t be taken seriously because it would ignore a very important part of our lives.

But Lent shows us that, as Christians, we are to reflect about where we have failed—where we have failed God, failed others and failed ourselves. And it reminds us that death—death of our loved ones and our own deaths—is simply a fact of life. It is a part of who we are and what we are. It forces us to realize that we are wholly dependent upon God for our life and for what comes after death.

Of course Ash Wednesday is not a time to disparage our bodies, to believe that our bodies are some kind of prisons for our souls. If we truly believe in the Resurrection, if we believe that Jesus was God Incarnate—God in the flesh—then we cannot believe that somehow the spirit is all-good and the flesh is all-bad. All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.

There is a beautiful poem—one of my all-time favorites-written by probably one of my favorite poets, Robinson Jeffers. In many ways it has a very healthy attitude to the body and the death of one’s body. Jeffers wrote this following the death from cancer of his wife, Una, in 1950.

The poem is titled “Cremation”

It nearly cancels my fear of death, my dearest said,
When I think of cremation. To rot in the earth
Is a loathsome end, but to roar up in flame — besides, I am used to it,
I have flamed with love or fury so often in my life,
No wonder my body is tired, no wonder it is dying.
We had a great joy of my body. Scatter the ashes.

“We had a great joy of my body.”

Hopefully, we can say the same of our bodies when the time comes for us to put our bodies aside. So, it’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. Rather it is simply a matter of not making our bodies our treasures.

Jesus tells us in tonight’s Gospel not to lay up our treasures on earth, in corrupting things, but to store up our treasures in heaven. A lot of us put more store in our bodies than we need. We sometimes don’t take great joy in our bodies at all, but rather abuse our bodies or become inordinately obsessed with our bodies or in what used to be called “the way of the flesh.” This time of Lent is a time to find a balance with our physical selves as well as with our spiritual selves. That is really the true meaning of Lent.

Where are our treasures? Are they here, in the corruptible, or in they in the incorruptible? This is the question we must ask. This is the question we should be pondering throughout this season.
So, as we head into this season of Lent, let it be a holy time. Let it be a time in which we ponder whatever momento mori we might have in our lives. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own selves—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual. But more than anything, let this holy season Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in goodness in our life.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening: “Now is the acceptable time.”
“Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation. Let us take full advantage of it.

The painting above is by Mike Egan whose website can be found at: (I'm a big fan)

1 comment:

James Diggs said...

After reading your blog today about Ash Wednesday I thought you may like to join us on facebook and “give up something for Lent to help Haiti”!

Please join and encourage others to join too so we can walk the journey of Lent together while helping Haiti.