I love Ash Wednesday. I love its irony – the Gospel lesson urges us to practice our piety (prayer, fasting and generosity) in secret, and then we are given a smudge of ash on our forehead for all to see as we go from worship into the world. Surely that must bring a smile to the Lord’s countenance.
But I love the public display of ashes on my forehead because at least on this one day every year, I am particularly mindful of the witness I offer through words and deeds, lest I give cause to anyone to cast aspersions on the name of the One I seek to serve and follow every day, or to give room for doubt or stumbling in faith because of the inconsistency between the mark of the cross on my brow and the marks of discipleship in my life.
And I love the yearly call to face my mortality and to continue turning to the Author of Life. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” These are not simply words, but concise truth. I remember the Ash Wednesday I marked a man’s forehead and the beginning of Lent with ashes, and the following Wednesday I attended his funeral.
This year’s Ash Wednesday was markedly different and unique, in that I received the gift of ashes at the end of a Roman Catholic Order for a Christian Funeral, also known as the Mass for the Dead. The service was squeezed that day between a morning chapel led by the priest and the students of the parochial school, and the next, 12 Noon service. Even as we mourners were departing, the faithful were gathering for that service.
“Media vita in morte sumus – In the midst of life we are in death,” has been professed in worship by Christians for more than a millennium; that phrase came to mind as in the midst of grief and loss of some, it was an ordinary day (albeit a sacred one) for most who came and went.
The 6th century Rule of Benedict teaches the faithful, “Keep death ever before your eyes,” as an everyday reminder of our mortality; in that spirit Steve Jobs rightly observed, “If you live each day as your last, one day you’ll be right.” Or as children chant without necessarily understanding, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” Daily consciousness of one’s mortality does tend to focus the mind and heart, and can be an excellent filter for discerning what matters and how best to use the fleeting moments loaned to us before our life is returned to its true Owner and Author.
This Ash Wednesday especially led me to be mindful of my mortality. My recent retirement both confronts me with the stark reality of how this next life chapter ends, and affords new opportunities for reflection, solitude, and discernment. So on the day following Ash Wednesday, I wrote my obituary as part of a process of funeral planning to aid and guide my loved ones when at last, my last day arrives.
When my dad died in 1987, my mother took that occasion to make her plans for her own funeral and to express her own wishes and desires. I affectionately called it her “lay away plan,” but deeply appreciated her taking the time to do so; at her death she made my life so much easier. My experience has been that most of us don’t necessarily know what songs or texts have shaped a life of faith; prior to her planning I could not have named those most formative for my mother’s discipleship. But when I reviewed them in planning her funeral, it was abundantly clear how influential those texts had been for her; while they did not always shape her as fully as they might have, clearly their imprint had been left on her life.
I knew this was something I wanted to do for my own loved ones. But it is still an odd thing to ponder your own death and to give expression to your heart’s desires for how to observe that passage. So after years of telling others the value of such planning, I finally prepared my own “lay away plan”last week.
The process was both a challenging and rewarding opportunity for sifting and sorting. How does someone who loves music, hymns and sacred songs, and who was part of a church choir before he was literate, select what shall be used to sing him over? How does someone steeped in scripture choose particular texts as parting words of witness? How do you choose from a brace of kinsmen, companions and friends those who have so particularly blessed and graced your days that you want them involved in your final day?
It was not an easy task, but as clarity arrived I found myself truly grateful for each relationship noted, and confident that the songs and scripture selected were at the core of who I am and am still becoming. Every choice and stated desire – who to contact initially; what I wanted as attire and what kind of container I wished for my mortal remains; where I wanted folks to gather and where I wished to be laid to rest; putting into writing my desire for the expressions of affirmations of faith manifested through Eucharist, Paschal candle, funeral pall, simplicity of clothing and casket; condensing a life into a death notice – all became sacramental and sacred.
Yesterday, on the first Sunday in Lent, the preacher reminded us that Wednesday’s cross of ashes is superimposed on the cross made at our baptism on our heads, hearts and lives. Every day affords the opportunity and challenge to bear witness that our lives are not our own and to show forth in our lives Christ’s love, mercy, grace, passion and life. And that watery cross mixed with ashes is a comfort and promise that all our days, from first to last, are lived in God’s care and compassion, so that in life and in death, we need not be afraid.
“In the midst of life we are in death.” The United Methodist Book of Worship’s Service of Death and Resurrection follows those words with this haunting question and bold affirmation, “From where will our help come? Our help is in the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” I used my mother’s obituary as a template for my own; it begins, “David Meredith Hindman, husband of Terrell (Teri) Linkous Hindman, died peacefully, unafraid and in the hope of resurrection on Month Day Year. The month, day and year are italicized to indicate they are to be completed with those specifics in days to come; in the same way “peacefully” and “unafraid” are italicized to indicate my permission for family to tell how I really died in case I am, in the end, anxious or fearful. The statement is aspirational, not wishful thinking. Whatever that day brings I hope and trust I will faithfully and humbly live and die into it, trusting in the One who gives life and takes it away, and has given Christ as a model for life and death, and life beyond death. What does remain constant and unequivocal in that opening sentence is the affirmation, “in the hope of resurrection.”
The first question and answer posed in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) sums it up well:
What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins…and has set me free…. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Amen. Thanks be to God.