Thursday, February 7, 2008

Shadow of death puts life in new light

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Those words are spoken as a priest smears ashes in the form of a cross on the foreheads of worshippers. It's the solemn mark of Ash Wednesday, and I came home with that mark last night.

The ashes felt more real this year after having held and scattered the ashes that are all that remain of my husband's flesh and bones. This year ashes were not a metaphor of death but a real, tangible link to loss. That loss also marks me -- less visibly, perhaps, but it doesn't wash off.

Remember. As if I could forget that he is dust. That I am dust.

But the point of the Ash Wednesday service is not just to rub mortality in our face but to remind us to live. It kicks off the season of Lent, a time of self-examination and repentance. It's a time to look honestly at how far we have wandered off course and to turn back, trusting in God's guidance and forgiveness.

The shadow of death puts our lives in a new light. Priorities shift. Time is too precious to waste. Life is too short to squander.

Because, although it is true we are dust, that is not all that we are.



Danbo59 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danbo59 said...

Well spoken, Jane.

Yes, the ashes remind me that without God all we are is dust. It is the reminder of my spirtual nature, my angelic nature. We are angels in corporeal shells, a blend of the two of God's great Creations. It reminds me that one day the corporeal will leave us (until the Resurrection of the body at which time we will be given a "glorifed" incorruptible body).

It is said by some that our dual nature was part of the reason why some of the angels became jealous and tried to overthrow their Creator.

Ashes remind me of the need to repent. The last shall be first. The lowly shall be exalted. The sinner will be reconciled. The ashes remind me not to take myself too seriously -- this life, and all the joys and sufferings inherent in it pale in comparison to the joy that awaits us in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I'm going to "travel" these forty days and forty nights with Christ -- and in the meantime I am going to attempt to be kinder to those who do not share my faith in God. That's my "small" cross to carry.

Iztok said...

I like the thoughts Jane. While Ash Wednesday doesn't have any special meaning my family always celebrated Fat Tuesday. (Not sure if this is correct name but for lack of better terms right now should do.)

For my family things are all about life. We as kids (my younger sister and I) grew up to celebrate life. We were reminded that life and knowledge is really all we have and should value it and celebrate it.

So to this day I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity to be alive at this brief moment in time as I was dead for millions of years before I was born and I'll be dead after my life is over as well. My first experience with death was at age of 11 when my grandfather died. I was very attached to him. Many years later my other grandfather died, briefly followed by his wife, my grandmother. I have one grandmother left. While I consider her my grandmother and she is my biological one, she doesn't consider me or my sister (nor grand grandkids on this side) on the same level as her other grandchildren. Honestly it feels like I don't have any grandparent left. There is another older person (she used to be my babysitter) that I am also grateful for to be in my life that is also dead. While I don't believe in life after death (I think both of my grandfathers felt the same but at least one went to church because of his wife and because it was socially unacceptable at that time not to go) I still pay a tribute in form of lighting a candle on their graves every time I visit my home country.

This reminds me of another ritual I like from my past. Every November 1st (Day of the dead) is a holiday in my country. It is not celebrated as it is in Mexico. It is not meant to be a fun ordeal. It is meant to show respect to our ancestors and dead friends and family as well as those who gave their lives for our freedoms. This is a day off for most of the people. Cemeteries are crowded with people and this opportunity is being used to catch-up with relatives, friends and family that you don't get to see that often. It is also interesting to me to observe the passing time as most of the graves are dug consequentially and you can see the "progress" from year to year.

Yet somehow all this reminds me how lucky we are to be living. The odds are against it, considering billions of DNA variations that someone else could be here instead of us. But they are not, and we are here. We are the lucky ones.

OK, I tried to write this as non-confrontational as possible. I think I did a good job of it and kept this on the topic of the post.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I'm dust. Someday I'll be dead and rotten, but now I'm completely alive. Big difference.

"The shadow of death puts our lives in a new light. Priorities shift. Time is too precious to waste. Life is too short to squander." I definitely agree.

Dave said...

There is a tremendous irony in the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday. In Matthew 6:16-18, we are admonished not to wear our penitence and fasting on our sleeves - but to wash our faces and groom ourselves so that our fasting is a matter between God and ourselves. Our clergy preach this message - then mark us with ashes.

To the extent receiving the imposition of ashes is sacramental it may have value. If it leaves the church and goes into the secular world its value diminishes and may even be counterproductive.

Repentance is a highly personal and private exercise. It is most appropriately held in the most sacred of spaces.

"Draw nigh unto God and He will draw nigh to you." (James 4:8a)

Nick said...

My first encounter with death really was a Sunday School teacher. My grandfather died when I was almost 2 and a half and I have no memory of that and when my grandparents died on my other side, well there was no real connection there. I hate to say it, but there was no sorrow. It was just that kind of relationship. That first death was extremely hard and happened on the anniversary of my grandfather's death.

Right now, I only have one grandmother left back home. I try to call her when I can to let her know how her only grandson is doing. She's sent me several letters here and I've kept each one. One of the first days after I moved here, she sent me a package and inside was "The Quotable Lewis."

My grandmother is in a retirement home now and is barely making it, but she decided to spend some to get me a book by surprise which was very touching. (And an excellent read.)

She keeps telling me she wishes she could do more for me financially like she could in the past. I tell her not to worry about it. I have to be on my own now and face my own battles. I want to do it that way anyway.

Oh Jane. I'd also say this. Your husband is not dust now. His body is, but he is not. I'm not sure if this quote is in "The Quotable Lewis", but it is in a work called "A Grief Observed" by him. In speaking about his recently deceased wife he said "If she does not now exist, she never did exist. I was not in love with a person but a set of molecules."

I also would recommend reading his chapter on Heaven in "The Problem of Pain." I recently had a dear friend who I suspected would die soon and the night that realization came from hearing all the hospital news, I read that chapter and it brought such a great peace.

For the record, my friend did die that night. I know she's still there though. Someday I'll chat with her again.

On that note, a friend of mine who knew us both when he speaks to me makes sure to call me friend regularly since we never know if it will be our last chance. I find that quite special.

JJ said...


I am so sorry to hear about your husband. I lost my one and only brother (and best friend) this year (he was 33)in a horrible car accident. It has brought my life, or lack thereof, into true focus. The thing I truly realized is that I, my mom and my dad would have been complete emotional wrecks if we had not been a Christ Followers when this happened. God built my faith prior to this happening and kept me strong through the ordeal. It happened less than two months ago, so the wounds are still fresh.

I have never had to do anything so difficult as to figure out what to say at his memorial. During the week long preparation for this, I felt God's presence in my life, strengthening me and giving me hope that I would see him again. God was good enough to give me tangible, undeniable signs that my brother was with Him.

If I have another 40 or 50 years on this earth, I believe it my purpose to love, to give and to spread the good news of our salvation through Christ.

I have three beautiful children that miss their uncle greatly. I will have to do my best to make sure they remember my brother and also live their lives for Him so they can see their uncle (and all of their loved ones after we die) again.

One other question just for possible discussion. I believe God put it into our hearts that we are all strangers in this world, and never quite feel 100% comfortable. Is it because we know we are going to die or is it because he wanted us to long for Him (or both)?

Iztok said...

I always wanted to ask this but never really felt comfortable with this. Believe it or not, there are some things I have hard time asking with regards to faith. Before anyone answers the question I would first ask Jane to say of this is an OK thing or not to ask. Once she says yes, then go answer, if she is not OK with it, Jane, please delete this particular post. OK?

Since I do not believe in life after death and being reunited with loved ones I can't really understand.

My grandmother is a Christian (belongs to RCC) and was married to my grandfather. About 10 years after he passed away she met a gentleman she felt in love with and spent many years together until he passed away as well. (He was a widower as well.) I know that their love as well as love of my grandparents was genuine and I have deep respect for this gentleman (more then for my own grandmother, he was more genuine and kind to me and my sister then my own grandmother).

So my question is, if my grandmother will be reunited with all the loved ones that died before her, will she be reunited with my grandfather or the person she loved last? (She didn't remarry, I don't think it would matter, but if answer would be conditional on this fact, please explain both positions.)

Jane, feel free to remove this post if you think it is not appropriate. I will not be upset at all.


Jane Pope said...

Iztok, there is nothing wrong with that question. In fact, it's very much like a question that the gospel of Matthew says Jesus was asked.

From chapter 22:
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. "Teacher," they said, "Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?"
Jesus replied, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living."
When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

Iztok, my personal belief is that after we die we are with God. And because I believe that the very nature of God is love, I expect to also experience the presence of those I have loved in this life. The rest of the details don't concern me.

I feel sure others will chime in, and that's fine.

Anonymous said...

Jane, let me just say that your blog is one of the best. You inspire me to be a better Christian.

As to the ashes, and the reminder of the specter of death, its most important purpose should be to emphasize the fact that we can have eternal life through Christ if we will only accept the gift. The price is that we must let God be our Lord, instead of us being our own Lord.

Rod said...

Iztok, your question is sincere, and not at all inappropriate.

Jane has already quoted the Bible scripture which I believe addresses the issue, at least in a limited way.

As a Christian, I accept that, along with the rest of the Bible, as truth. I know that it leaves unanswered questions, but I believe that God has told me through the Bible all that I really need to know at this time.

I believe that your grandmother will know both of these men in heaven, will love them both, and be loved by them both. The "love triangle" won't be an issue, because for all of them, their primary relationship will be with Christ, not with each other.

I have numerous questions of my own about the nature of life in heaven, but lack of answers won't keep me from getting there, nor from wanting to be there.

Iztok, thanks for asking the question.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Pope,

On Ash Wednesday, for the first time, I attended my church's service. As the ash was administered, I saw flames. They weren't real flames, but for a minute I thought they were, until I recognized them. Many years ago, the best friend I ever had died in a fiery car wreck. For months after his death, the flames would waken me every night. Over these many years, they have come, mainly, to herald the anniversary of his death.

Not long before his death, he had said something so painful to me that it had destroyed our friendship. It was one of those rare cases in which one person was deeply and clearly in the wrong. He even went to a professional counseler, to get objective advice, only to be told, "I don't know if I could forgive you for that. I don't know that I would want to."

This is important, because he told me this when he came to me and apologized, and asked for things to be "like they were". Only they couldn't. We were both sorry it was so, but it just didn't work. Then he said, "Can we just go on from here?" So we tried.

The trouble was, we kept running into the past. It hurt me, and it hurt him, too. But he kept coming back, choosing to hurt not only in that he had hurt me, but also in living with what a jerk he was and how much harm he'd done me. He did it anyway, because he thought our friendship was worth hurting for--not just once, but over and over--and not just in failing, but in living with his having caused great harm. He could justifiably have walked away ("That was the worst thing I've ever done, and there's just no way to undo it."). His willingness to be hurt become the cement with which we were rebuiling our friendship. Every day, it told me how much our friendship meant to him in a way that began to build a new and different kind of trust between us.

When he died, I couldn't face it--not the pain, not the shame, not the guilt that I hadn't been able to "forgive"--I'd wanted to, but it simply isn't possible to reverse some scars. So much was left undone.

As I sat in my church, shivering, I realized that I didn't know how to repentant. I only knew shame and guilt. My inability to face my pain had left me in a sort of suspended animation of suffering. After turning this over all this while, I think that I have come to a sort of understanding.

Repentence is what my friend did. Repentence is the willingness to open your heart even when it hurts and continues to hurt to do so.

In the Ash Wednesday service, God calls us to bring our burnt and broken hearts to Him, and to keep them open. That means recognizing and living with our own sins and failures. It means recognizing what dreadful people we are. It means deliberately choosing to enter the fire, even when you know you will become ashes. It means choosing to love, even though we know we will suffer terribly for it. It is only in this manner that we can be healed. For most of us, it is only when we are broken apart that we are able to be open to Him, and He calls us to choose to do so every day. It is the only way he can change our inmost selves. He call us to choose to be fully alive and loving even in our deepest pain.

My understanding of the Christian seasons now are different from most people's. To me, Christmas is about hope. Easter is joyous celebration of our eventual triumph over our fallen selves and
fallen world. Ash Wednesday is how God gets us there: He asks us to choose to suffer so that we may live in His love and forgiveness. After all, He was willing to give up everything to be with us--the objects of his love. The other portions of the year are for rejoicing, but Lent is when He asks us to be fully alive in our humanity--to choose to live in pain.

I'll do my best to follow my friend's example and accept the invitation to love, from the truth of my humanity.

My life has including far more of suffering than of happiness, but very rich and powerful gifts have been given to me, even in my pain.

I'm sorry this is so long, but I wanted to share this difficult, wonderful, and lovely gift.

Sincerely yours,
Anonymous Again