There was a couple who lived very strict lives of practices, diets and exercise. They would eat a healthy diet, watch blood pressure and cholesterol, get exercise and absolutely eat incredibly intentionally and purposefully. Perhaps the great symbol of all of this was the omnipresence of oat bran: cereal, muffins, the ever-imaginative addition to more recipes than can be remembered; Oat bran every day. They lived to the late nineties. Both died and went to heaven. One day while walking around and seeing all the wonders one said to the other, “Gee, I never imagined it would be like this.” The other said, “Just think we could have been here years ago if it wasn’t for all that oat bran.”
And Lent is the liturgical season when we consider our spiritual practices, our spiritual exercises, and spiritual diets. And it begins here on Ash Wednesday.
A most unusual day. It is not a Sunday. It is not a Holy Day of Obligation. Receiving the ashes is not a sacrament. Yet, there will be “standing room only” in the Catholic Churches throughout the world jammed with people who have come to receive the ashes and be reminded of the most relevant fact of life: “Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you will return.”
No one will ever deny this inevitable fact of life. But there are many who try to ignore it. They try to ignore it by constantly competing in a race to the top of the ladder of success. They feverishly burn up their energy and time, multi-tasking and trying to feather this little nest here as if it will go on forever. They are like the rich fool in the Gospel parable who said, “I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, ‘You have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink and be merry!’“ But God said to him, “You fool this night they will demand an account of you, whose then will be all these things you have compiled?” (Luke 12: 18) In other words, you never see a U Haul hitched to a hearse.
Other people accept the fact of death. But they accept it with sadness. They accept it with stoic resignation in the face of the inevitable. They grit their teeth and try to endure what they cannot cure. This is a better solution than trying to ignore it. But for them life becomes a dull, dreary, meaningless existence.
Receiving the ashes reminds us that death is its own blessing. Death is the great healer. In death we don’t get a new heart, kidney or liver, we get a whole new glorified body that will live forever. It is not so much life after death as life through death. Death is the door to life, to the life that really is worth living. “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:55)
And there are those who accept the fact of death with joy. They accept it with the joy of the resurrection. It is the joy of anticipation of what “eye has not seen, or ear heard, or has it entered into the heart of man to conceive.” It is the joy of anticipation of union with God, by whom we were created, for whom we were created, and without whom we can never be happy. It is the joy of anticipation that Jesus experienced when “For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb. 12:2) – for the sale of joy! It is the joy of anticipation that Paul experienced when he said, “…forgetting what lies behind but straining to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus.” (Phil.3:13) It is the joy of anticipation that St. Theresa experienced on her death bed when she said, “Lord, it is surely time that we see one another.”
This joy of anticipation is symbolized and expressed in the imposition of ashes in the sign of the cross. The ashes remind us of our mortality. The sign of the cross reminds us of our immortality. The ashes remind us of our creation, out of dust. The sign of the cross reminds us of our re-creation, in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It reminds us that Jesus became one of us precisely to die and then to conquer death for us. It reminds us that in death life is changed not ended.
This is Ash Wednesday.