Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday

February 10, 2016

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

+ Fourteen years ago—in 2002—Ash Wednesday fell on February 13. On that Wednesday, I was here, at St. Stephen’s. My friend, Andrea, and I had eaten supper at Juano’s that night and came over for the Ash Wednesday mass. I wasn’t a priest yet. But, I was, to be bluntly honest, in a bad place in my life on that Ash Wednesday. I had just been laid off from a job. And physically  I was not feeling well. Later that week, I would have to face that fact that something physically was not right in my life. And a week later to the day, on February 20, I was diagnosed with cancer.

It was a very hard Lent for me that year. For some reason, I think of that Ash Wednesday often in my life. It was an important night for me.  I remember, on that night in 2002, that I had made a concentrated resolve to change my life, to “turn my life around.” And just when I thought that was exactly what I was doing, the bottom dropped out.  

Not only did something bad happen to me. Something life-threatening happened to me. And I was faced not only with the unpleasantness of life. I was faced with sickness.  And death. My own death.

Maybe that’s why that Ash Wednesday and that Lent of 2002 was so important to me.  Because, let’s face it: that’s what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about.  Ash Wednesday—and these ashes we are using tonight—are also ways in which we too face these harsh realities of our lives. They are reminders that we, one day, will die. I hate to be the one to tell you that news, just in case you hadn’t realized that before.  We are all, one day, going to die.

The traditional phrase for a reminder of our death is Momento Mori. Back “in the day”—we’re talking the medieval and renaissance day—it was common 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.

Well, tonight, we have our own momento mori. These ashes that we are about to receive are, truly our momento mori—our reminder that we are al going to die one day.  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 simply not the case. We don’t realize that we are bones and ash essentially.

In this service this evening, 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 cremation or burial in the ground.

In my life as a priest, I have presided over many, many funerals, with embalmed bodies and cremated bodies. And, let me tell you, doing so certainly puts into perspective the fact that we are all physically disposable. With cremation so prevalent these days, out momemto mori is not so much a human skull anymore. Our momento mori is nowadays ashes.

I thought about that a lot back during Lent in 2002.  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 came to conclusions such as my decision to  be cremated and have my ashes buried in the family plot at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Cemetery in Harwood. Or what the kind of funeral I wanted for myself (which is, of course, a High Requiem Mass with lots of incense).

And I thought a lot about what comes after all 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 relationship 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 burned to ashes or buried.  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 this life we 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.

It would be depressing and bleak if ashes and the skull were the end of our story. It would be sad and sorrowful if all we are reminded of when we ponder these ashes 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 is shows us that, even though we are living in the glorious light of Easter, bestowed on us at our Baptism, it’s not always sunshine and flowers and frivolous happiness all the time. If our Christian 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. 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. Lent is not a time for us to deny our bodies or see 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 and in what used to be called “the way of the flesh.” We eat too much. We drink too much. We get lazy sometimes. And we let our bodies go sometimes.
This time of Lent is a time for us 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 truly 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.

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