“Behind the altar on the east wall of the chapel of a Trappist monastery high up in the Rocky Mountains, there hangs a simple wooden cross. It will stay there until it is taken down to mark the grave of whichever brother is the next to die. Until then it hangs on that wall so that whenever the monks turn and face the altar, they also turn and face this very simple and immediate symbol of their own death.” In this way, the brothers literally practice Benedict’s admonition to “keep death daily before your eyes,” (de Waal, Living with Contradiction, p.113).
Those words have taken on a whole new meaning this year, haven’t they? We are nearing half a million people in our country who have died of Covid-19. We’re meeting virtually for worship–again–tonight to prevent us from catching and spreading the coronavirus. We keep death daily before our eyes because, if we don’t, death could claim us or someone we love much too soon. We keep death daily before our eyes because we are not able to grieve in the ways we’re used to, surrounded by friends and family. Grief has nowhere to go, and so, it stays with us, weighing heavily in our hearts.
“Keep death daily before your eyes.” It sounds morbid when you first hear it, but if you think about it, what happens when you keep death before your eyes? At first, you might think, “I don’t want to die!” If someone were to ask, Why don’t you want to die? You’d be likely to respond: “Because I have so many things left I want to do!”
Exactly. When you think about your mortality, you start making a bucket list. Didn’t know that started in the 5th century with Benedict, did you? Benedict was so smart! He knew that thinking of our deaths keeps us focused on how we’re living our lives.
And how we live our lives is what tonight is all about.
So, how’s the living of your life going? Do you feel good about everything you’re doing? All your relationships? Your relationships with family, friends, other people in the world, creation, God, yourself… your faith community? Are you content? Do you feel completely comfortable in your own skin?
Chances are that if you’re here tonight, you aren’t quite comfortable in your own skin. Something feels a little “off.” You feel disconnected from God, other people, creation, yourself. Chances are you’re here tonight because you want to feel more connected.
The gift of Lent and, especially, of Ash Wednesday, is the opportunity it provides to get rid of everything that’s extraneous, to get down to what is most authentic, most elemental in who we are.
Tonight, as we touch the ashes, we’ll be reminded that “from dust we have come and to dust we will return.” As you receive the ashes (in whatever way you will be receiving them), you’re also invited to touch the waters of baptism. A few weeks ago, we remembered our baptisms, where God says to each of us: You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased. As we are reminded of our mortality tonight, let us also remember just how loved we are.
Tonight, as we remember our baptisms, I invite us also to reflect on this question from the baptism liturgy of the Episcopal Church: “Will you strive for justice and peace and will you respect the dignity of every person?”
We come from dust, we return to dust. We are deeply loved. We respond to that love by loving others.
It’ll be a little different tonight, but we’re going to impose the ashes. If you have–safely!–created ashes, you may simply touch the ashes and make the sign of the cross on your own forehead. If you’re with others, you may impose the ashes on each other.
If you don’t have any ashes, no worries. Simply imagine the ashes being imposed, or remember a time in the past when you’ve received the imposition of ashes.
After the imposition of ashes, you’re also invited to touch the waters of baptism. Remember how much you are loved. Hear again the calling to share the love you have received with others.
Imposition of Ashes
(If you have ashes, you may impose them on your own forehead. Also, if you have brought water to your worship area, you are invited to touch the water and remember your baptism. You might reflect on how both symbols—baptismal water and penitential ashes—encompass the full gamut of what it means to be human.)
From dust we have come,
To dust we will return.
And from one point to the next,
Our God will carry us. Thanks be to God!
Prayer. Holy One, living authentic, joyful lives is sometimes hard…like, really hard. We want to be kind and compassionate, we want to build others up in love, we want to do good in the world, we want to do well by our families, we want to do well by our church family…but we mess up. We mess up in really bad and big and twisted ways. We get to the point where we’re afraid to say or do anything because everything just seems to hurt–it hurts us, it hurts others. Sometimes, Holy One, we start slipping into despair.
Thank you for the gift of this Ash Wednesday service. Thank you for the opportunity to step away from the noise and tension of our lives and confess what needs to be confessed and, especially, to receive your grace and forgiveness. Help us to receive–into our inmost beings–help us receive down to our deepest selves your forgiveness, your grace, your love.
Help us to remember that we are loved. Help us to remember to respect the dignity of every person. Help us to remember that “none of us are as bad as the worst thing we’ve ever done.” In the assurance of your love we pray, Amen.
Hymn #223 What Wondrous Love Is This
The Lenten journey–if we engage it down to our deepest selves–isn’t easy. Facing squarely all the ways in which we fail to live up to our baptismal vows is hard work. As you embark up this journey, know this, God’s wondrous love will surround you and sustain you and give you strength every step of the way. Go now in the knowledge of God’s peace. May you rest in God’s love. Amen.