Ash Wednesday is March the 5th this year.  Churches that observe this religious day will invite participants to receive a mixture of oil and ashes upon their foreheads in the form of a cross.  The ancient rite instructs the worship leader to recite Genesis 3:19 as the ashes are applied.  “For dust you are and to dust you shall return”.  These are the words of God, spoken to Adam and Eve after they partook of the forbidden fruit, causing sin and death to come upon our world.

 Why would Christianity assign a day to contemplate death?  Are not Christians supposedly happy with their personal relationship with Jesus?  There are positive benefits to the spiritual life however reaping some of those rewards require us to be uncomfortable. 
The Order of Worship for Ash Wednesday is uncomfortable.  First of all, there is no preaching.  Secondly, many opportunities are given for the contemplation of scripture verses by way of silent prayer.  The scriptures chosen are not “happy”.  Sorrow, death, and acts of lamentation and repentance in response to sin are just a few topics worshippers are invited to internalize while silence fills the sanctuary.  I liken the experience to attending my first funeral as a child.  I remember slowly approaching the casket.  The room faded away.  All the sights and sounds were gone and there I stood; me and a corpse.  Was I too going to end this way?  I was ten years old and in perfect health.  Just the other day, I amazed my 5th grade class by balancing a tater tot on my chin only to project the fried potato bit upwardly, landing it perfectly in my mouth.  I did all of this while standing on one foot!  How could a casket be in my future?  Why could life not be an eternal continuing of tater tot feats?
My grandmother brought me back to the room.  Her wrinkled hand took my arm, leading me to our assigned pew.  I noted every wrinkle and arthritic knot in that hand, realizing that she would probably die before me.  I felt comfort knowing that she and I had a similar destination.  Knowing I was not alone brought peace as the shattering thought of growing up,  growing old and dying sank into my adolescent mind.  I relive this moment every Ash Wednesday service and add a deeper insight each year.
The awareness of the death’s certainty has great value in the spiritual life.  It teaches us to embrace each chapter of the life we have been given, gleaming lessons and giving thanks.  It bonds us together as sojourners of a common journey, breeding compassion for our fellow humans.  Christians think about how the life, death, suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ weighs in the scales of their personal and communal lives.  In summary, death gives us questions about life, that otherwise would be futile. 
Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dy’in” tells the story of a man diagnosed with cancer.  The chorus gives his reaction to the medical news:
I went sky divin’,
I went rocky mountain climbin’,
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull name Fumanchu.
And I loved deeper, And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’ve been denying,
And he said someday I hope you get the chance, To live like you were dyin’.
There is great value in the contemplation of death.  It gives us the starting place to begin each day with the end in mind.  Ancient Christians found this so valuable that they programmed Ash Wednesday into the yearly worship cycle.  I hope we can make room for these uncomfortable thoughts that prepare us to “live like we were dy’in”.
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