My tradition of origin wasn't big on days like today. When every Sunday is Easter what use is Ash Wednesday or the refining season of Lent? Growing up a few blocks from a large Catholic church meant that I would see numerous people with smudges on their foreheads. At the time, it seemed strange to me to ritualize the fact that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Who wants to go out of their way to remember their "being-toward-death?" I would intentionally try to avert my eyes when friends would walk by with their dusty, temporary existential tattoos as if by sheer avoidance I could shield myself from being infected by that reminder. As a child, the reality of death had a far-off quality. It was something that happened to old people or to people who acted foolishly on their ATV while careening down steep sand dunes. My contract with the universe at the time included the reality of death, but the details were in small print, and nobody really reads those Terms and Conditions on the occasion of their entrance into the human community. I fear that many of you, like myself, have been avoiding that long gaze with Finitude for a host of understandable reasons. To some, the words, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return," sound like a death sentence.
To that I say a hearty, “Yes!” It most certainly is, but it may also be just the reminder we need to experience life again.
If we're lucky, we experience a falling apart where old forms die so that something new might be born. As a close friend of mine shared today, maybe the seed needs to spend a good deal of time in the darkness of the soil before the shell can break open and grow into something green. In a culture obsessively intent on avoiding death at all costs (and in the hospital setting, this can become quite literal), it is no wonder that Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent stands in such stark contrast to our society's proclivity to distract itself with an obliviousness that results in activities meant to prolong youthfulness and that produces versions of self-help that communicate the need for people to love themselves with little view of the teleological horizon toward which such love compels compassionate action. Days like today are reminders that we literally don't have all the time in the world. We may not get the opportunity to live to enjoy that retirement toward which we’re contributing. We may not get the chance to see our children grow into adulthood or experience the unique love a grandparent has for their grandchild. We may only get to year two of our five year plan for our life for reasons covered in the Terms and Conditions of our contract with the world.
Ash Wednesday is a day where the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and freedom intersect with the paradoxical Christian understandings of death and new life. If we must lose our life to save our life, what better way to remember than to find ourselves vulnerably face to face with someone who touches our forehead with ash, reminding us somatically, emotionally, theologically, and existentially that the ride does end at some point for each of us. If you find yourself in a season of the dark night of the soul, know that there are millions of people today who—at least for a moment—join you in that space of terminal reflection and who—like you—are journeying toward a felt sense of the freedom and community that was our birthright all along.