Thursday, February 26, 2009

The fate of us all

Most Christian traditions observe Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent. At Masses, services, and even as individuals Christians receive a smudge of ashes on their forehead along with an invocation. This is the only Christian ceremony that leaves a notably visible sign on a person.

Why ashes? Ashes aren't a sacrament, and there's no record of Jesus or the apostles either using ashes or commanding their use. But ashes are an ancient sign of repentance in both Jewish and pagan cultures. Deliberately making oneself dirty was a sign of distress, mourning, or lament.

This is the case with their usage on Ash Wednesday. The ashes are applied with an invocation, a command. The ancient formula is, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust you shall return." This is taken directly from Genesis 3:19, where God curses Adam for his disobedience, telling him that instead of the glorious immortality he was meant to enjoy with God, his immediate fate would be physical death. His body would return to the inanimate earth from which he was drawn. His inescapable fate, and the fate of all his descendants, would be death.

This is worth pondering. Ours is a culture that doesn't want to look at death. I've been at funerals where death wasn't mentioned once. We were there to "celebrate the life" of the deceased, and there were references to her "being at peace" and having "gone on". Even with the coffin right there in their midst, people didn't want to face the fact that they had been visited by death, and certainly didn't want to consider that the same fate awaited all attending.

Yet there is no more certain fate. Whatever will happen to any of us, we will all die. I may or may not ever touch the Eiffel Tower, see the Himalayas, play the violin, or skydive. It's even possible that I'll never pay any more taxes. But I will know death. It may be swift or it may be slow. I may have time to prepare for it, or it may take me unexpectedly. But death is the one experience we're all guaranteed. The day will come when my breath will shorten, my vision will darken, and I will die to this world.

This is worth pondering all by itself, without dragging in other considerations. Death will happen to us all. We will return to dust. Whether we received a smudge of ceremonial ashes on our forehead yesterday or not, stop today and ponder the fact that someday you will die. Your days on earth are numbered - and you don't know the number.

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