For several years, we’ve observed this day here at Sojourn, and it’s been one of the more meaningful worship services that I attend each year. We huddle in the dark pre-dawn, reading from the scriptures, singing laments, confessing our sins, and confronting death. We mark our foreheads with ashes, reminding one another, “From dust you were made, to dust you shall return.” It’s not a sacrament. It’s not any kind of magical hocus-pocus. It’s simply a regular, tactile, and solemn way to remember the looming reality of death as we prepare for the celebration of resurrection at Easter.
It’s all the more important in a culture that desperately seeks to deny the reality of death. Not too long ago, most dying and most funerals happened at home. Now, they’re all but sequestered to hospitals and nursing facilities, out of the view of daily life. These are but a few of a thousand strategies for dealing with our fear of death, all of which boil down to two attitudes: denial or panic.
Living in denial of death is typically a youthful response. We live recklessly, believing that death will come for the old, the weak, or the sick, but not for us. Such recklessness plunges out of airplanes and into strange beds, shunning any measure of caution.
Eventually, most death-deniers are brought into face-to-face encounters with the future they fear: the death of a friend or loved one, a bad diagnosis, an accident or close call. As the cultural myth goes, this brings us “down to earth” and we live in a more solemn acknowledgment of life’s realities.
But really, it merely brings us into the next phase of denial of death: panic. We exercise more and drink less. We cut out fried foods and switch to olive oil in our kitchens. Many of our obsessive tendencies over workouts, weightloss, and food (organic, low-carb, high-carb, or whatever our pet issue is) are rooted primarily in a fear of death that drives us to obsessive nit-picking and guard railing of our lives. We think if we can just get the living-recipe right, perhaps we can stave it off.
Ash Wednesday serves to interrupt denial and panic both. It quietly reminds us, in the days before Easter, that death comes for all born under the curse, and it lays groundwork for the hope of Easter Sunday to ring all the louder and more powerful.
And while I certainly don’t think it’s mandatory for Christians or churches, I would simply want to ask the critics, “What’s your strategy? How are you preparing for your encounter with death? How do we push back the curtains of denial and settle down the strategies of panic?”
There is a snarky criticism that often emerges around days like Ash Wednesday. I see it mostly in my reformed friends on Facebook and Twitter, offering subtle (and not-so-subtle) mockery of the church calendar, Catholic practices, and the imposition of the ashes.
To those critics, I’ll agree: Ash Wednesday isn’t required. But preparing for our encounter with death is a gospel priority. We live in a culture loaded with death-denying strategies. How are we, as the church, refusing the blinders they offer, staring death in its face, and saying all the more boldly, “Where is your sting?”