This is the first post I have done in some time. I have been busy getting married and planting the first seeds of an Ordinariate community in my area, but I have several posts in the pipeline and am hoping to revive this blog. The following post was originally written for the blog Many Horizons in 2014 during my Anglican Days and I have only slightly modified it for this blog. It was also written before the death of my mother, and so the experience of life and death which Ash Wednesday enacts is even more vivid for me now than it was then, yet these words remain true.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I still remember the first time a priest said these words to me as he inscribed a cross of ash upon my forehead. Though that act took place in a moment of ritual embedded in a long tradition, it was in that moment as if he, and God through him, were speaking to me alone. The words dripped with intentionality, vivid and sharp, and they pierced through my consciousness to uncover something deeper which always lay below—an awareness of death.
I am dying. Not in any dramatic and immediate way (to my knowledge), but death has been bearing down on me from the moment of my birth. As the priest placed those ashes on my head, I felt the horror and sadness of this fact, but I also felt release.
We live in a world where death is everywhere present, and yet forever removed from our consciousness. The meat we eat comes packed and clean, separate from the death that brought it to us. Our wars are fought with drones at a remote distance. The sick are kept in sterile hospitals, the mentally ill in institutions, and the old in care homes. Even biology tells us that our life is built on the death of countless creatures over millions of years before us, and yet we rarely face the sharpness of this fact. As Joseph Ratzinger said, “sickness and death are becoming purely technological problems to be handled by the appropriate institution.” The tension of death’s simultaneous presence and absence places us in a psychologically untenable place. We know we are dying, we know others die, yet we are unequipped to face it—we lack even the language. One of the reasons Ash Wednesday is so powerful is that it brings us face to face with our death, reminds us with stark and powerful language what we are.
This reminder, that we are finite creatures, is healing for another reason as it tears down our own idolatrous pride. I love Ecclesiastes for this very reason, for this truth, in the end, is a great comfort, reminding us that we cannot accomplish everything, that we are not God that we should save the world, and this frees us for rest and play.
Or at least, it would, were it not for sin. In sin death becomes not simply a fact of the universe but our enslaver and the great chasm separating us from God. Thankfully, God never leaves us in the grave. The “hallelujah” of resurrection, absent during Lent, nevertheless still echoes in the silences of the liturgy; the Ordinariate’s Ash Wednesday service itself ends with a collect that reminds us of God’s forgiveness:
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
God reminds us of our death, but he also calls us out of death. He reveals our sins, He forgives them, and He calls us to grow into His love. Lent calls us to live into the work of God, in hope of the resurrection which is to come.
As we go forward into this season of Lent, I say to you “Memento mori”—remember that you will die. But do not despair. Look instead to the one who came to save us from death and who “descended into hell” for our salvation. I leave you with a section from one of my favorite Psalms:
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more.
But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
On those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children,
To such as keep His covenant,
And to those who remember His commandments to do them. (Psalm 103:11-18)
 Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 70.