Ash Wednesday is a strange day. In a few moments we will have ashes rubbed on our foreheads and will be reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Then we will kneel together and confess in public a long list of ways we have participated in the evil in the world around us.
Tonight the church calls us to face head on the very things we work so hard to deny or forget the rest of the year: death and sin. But, oddly enough, my experience has been that this day and its mate, Good Friday, speak to a very deep need within us, a need as profound and abiding as the needs addressed by Christmas and Easter, a need to talk about the hard, broken things in our lives.
At some point the time comes for all of us when we want to name the 900 lb. elephant sitting in the room with us and stop trying to avoid it: We know we will die. We know our lives, and this world, aren’t what they were meant to be. And there can be a relief in just saying it all. So we come tonight for truth, even if it’s hard truth, because we need it, and because we know that if there is finally any real joy for us, it has to be a joy big enough for all that is dark and troubling.
The philosopher Ernest Becker wrote a book called The Denial of Death claiming that avoiding the reality of death is the main motivating factor in human life. It isn’t that we think about death all the time, he says, but our awareness of our littleness, of how fragile our lives are, is the primary force that produces all our culture, art, cities, and philosophies, as well as our armies and weapons and desire to dominate.
Like all creatures, we will die, but unlike other creatures, we know it, and that knowledge weighs on us. The birds chirp so happily because they are ignorant. We, in our heart of hearts, know where life is moving. We will work our hands to the bone, put in endless hours at the office, acquire advanced degrees, trade one partner in a relationship for another, get our names on bronze plaques, all in futile attempts to deny “that we are dust and to dust we shall return.”
But Ash Wednesday invites us to accept our mortality, because when we do, we can begin to see what our lives are really all about. Listen to this poem by Mary Oliver called “When Death Comes.” It is about the freedom and peace that comes with facing into the truth.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn,
when death comes and takes all
the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door
full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that
cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility, . . .
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
To accept that we are going to die can have just this freeing impact on us, because it releases us from the fantasy that we are going to create our immortality, that we will ever be gods ourselves, and it allows us to relish our lives as creatures. And once we take the pressure to be gods off of our shoulders, we can turn back to this stunningly beautiful world that we have been given for these few years, and love it.
“What do you make of it all?” I asked a close friend going through a battle with cancer recently. “Every day is a pure, unimaginable gift,” she said. “And, you know, I never would have known that any other way.”
“Remember that you are dust” is tremendous good news for us, because it is true; it returns us to reality. And tonight, if we can begin to accept it, we will be deeper and freer.
And it is very good news for us to kneel in a few moments to confess our sins. Isn’t it a great relief to know that we were made to live truer, more connected, more compassionate lives, that the world was never intended to be divided, riddled with problems and tragedy? It’s like walking around for weeks with some undiagnosed illness that has us dragging and oppressed and is clearly spreading everywhere around us. How freeing, how hopeful it is to be able to point to the problems, to name them, to get some help. We are, as the medieval theologians put it, in curvatus se, “turned in on ourselves,” perpetually absorbed with the desires, anxieties, and possessiveness of the demanding ‘me’.
And so in the Confession we will name our disease,
We confess to you…
Our self-indulgent appetites and ways,
Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts,
Our negligence in prayer and worship,
Our blindness to human need and suffering,
Our waste and pollution of your creation…
We are naming tonight where our lives are trapped, stuck, where we are caught in the addictive patterns of a driven society.
But confession can also take time. I encourage you to return to this confession in the coming days and weeks, even with pen and paper beside you. Name where it is you are caught, where you are failing to be fully alive—who needs forgiving, what anger you’re holding on to, where you are blind, where you are wasteful. And then bring your list into the quiet of this church, or into a time of confession with a minister, or simply into the silence of your own home, and offer it to God for forgiveness and healing. And then stay there, and allow God’s acceptance and love to wash over you.
At the root all of our sins are games we play and compensations we seek because of an unsatisfied hunger for a love only God can give. Because we lack God, we act as if we must be gods, or we make things around us into our gods.
And tonight as we gather at the altar to receive Christ’s Body and Blood, God says, “Come home. All is forgiven. Come home to the Love that has been waiting for you all along.”
Tonight we creatures who will die will be fed by a Love that doesn’t die and that offers us eternal life. And tonight we wandering souls trapped in our sin are being forgiven, and welcomed home, and invited to start again.
There is good news in all this hard talk of sin and death. Because the only way to know something other than sin and death is to know them first, and then look to the Cross, to our Savior, who has life and then more life to give us.
Welcome, my friends, to Ash Wednesday, and to the liberating journey of Lent.