Ash Wednesday: Morbid, Hopeful Humor for Another Year’s Journey

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Maybe there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday is the day that the church always plays a joke on us: the Gospel is about how not to disfigure your face, then we go and put ash on ours right after that.

In addition, this year, for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday is also Valentine’s Day; “be my Valentine, ya sinning mortal.” And that is where we begin today.

Just recently, I happened upon a crude and delightful Instagram account called @LordBirthday which usually includes mostly ridiculous lists.

My favorite list was “Things I worry about that are totally normal to worry about.”

Some highlights: “That I will be asked by a farmer to participate in a rice harvest.”

“That I will get too tall and become the TOWN JOKE”

“That I will get stuck in the blood pressure machine at Rite Aid and just have to become part of the store.”

“That I will lose my nose in a war”

“That I will be left for dead in a room full of ukuleles”

“That I will have a big, splashy panic attack in the YMCA pool,” and finally, we see @Lord Birthday’s penchant for ending with a veiled but serious existential crisis:

“That I will go gently into that good night.”

All of us have a mounting list of worries, some ridiculous, some legitimate. For most people, things related to death rank high on the list.

Jesus people gather on Ash Wednesday to begin Lent by talking about death. Our own mortality, to be specific. We cover other things, too, as you can tell by the readings, but the most personal part of the entire service is receiving the ashes and hearing the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” which echoes some of the last the words that will likely be spoken at our funerals: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Everyone dies, no matter what they accomplish. You cannot be good enough to dodge death. Death makes us humble, so that is why we begin Lent this way.

Seems like a bit of a joke, doesn’t it, to come to church on Valentine’s Day to be reminded of your own mortality. Weirdos.

I read in The Atlantic about an app whose sole purpose is to remind you five times a day that you’re going to die. It’s inspired, apparently, by a “famous Bhutanese folk saying” asserting that “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” This app pings your phone at unpredictable intervals, recalling the unpredictability and suddenness of death, with sometimes incredibly morbid quotes about death along with a terse message: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” It’s called WeCroak and it’s supposed to bring you inner peace.

I read the article. I did not download the app. (1)

Then there’s TurboTax, which has been running a new series of commercials lately. There’s one where a woman breathes hard and weeps in fear for her life behind a slatted closet door, the light in the room illuminating her tears and her terrified eyes.  Sinister music in the background plays as she tries to get a better view of what waits behind the door. We see a rocking chair. We hear squeaks. We see a shadow move in the room towards the door and the terrified woman.

The woman screams as the door is suddenly pulled open in front of her.

In the room stands a singular adorable teddy bear, which beatboxes, hums, and dances… for an uncomfortably long time.

A single line fills the screen: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” (2)

The commercial’s about our fear of taxes, but I sometimes wonder if the same is true of our fear of death. If you’re like me and most people, every now and then you have an existential crisis where you deeply fear death, for ourselves and our loved ones.

Though churches have, over the years, offered sure and certain answers, the Bible is much more concerned with how we live in this world than what happens in the next.

All we know officially is death and resurrection, but I have some hunches.

The end of the Monty Python movie Life of Brian includes a song that I’ve always wanted played at my funeral. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” includes the gem: “Life’s a laugh, and death’s a joke, it’s true.”

Don’t get me wrong: I know that death is not actually a joke. It is a scary, ugly reality that looms over all life everywhere. There is a reason we say that the last enemy to be destroyed is death.

But I’m also well aware that not only is Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day, but Easter this year, some forty-something days from now, is on April Fool’s Day. Kind of appropriate, I think, considering it’s the day we celebrate Jesus making a fool of death, pulling off the universe’s ultimate hoodwink. I imagine him winking back at the deep, dark tomb, knowing everything is different, now.

April fool. 

But today, my job is to be your version of the WeCroak app. We will all die, and so will everyone that we love. To some of us, that’s obvious, because we think about death all the time, whether we’ve witnessed death our whole lives or whether we’re coming to terms the passage of time. Others, for whatever reason, find ourselves living above the fear of death, rarely thinking about it until it crashes into our world through the death of someone else.

Either way, we will all die, so Ash Wednesday reminds us that while we’re here, for whatever time we have left, we’d better learn to live.

So live.

And here, on Valentine’s Day, love. If you don’t have a significant other, reach out to someone else to say hello. If you’re estranged from everyone, we’re glad you’re here and we’ve got love to spare and plenty of Jesus bread to go around.

Give thanks that while it is true that WeCroak, we follow the one who came that we may have life, and have it abundant, the one who offers himself to us here, and the one who played a giant joke on death.

You are dust. Technically stardust, most specifically. You were created from dust to be part of the earth, to live and love and for God’s sake, laugh, on the earth. You are dusty and holy and woefully imperfect and completely beloved.

And when the time comes that all of us, no matter how rich or smart or talented or good, meet the great enemy Death, may we wink like Jesus, realizing that Love has hoodwinked death, realizing that when the door is thrown open, there’s nothing to be afraid of. And may we “go gently into that good night,” having lived, and returned, to Love. Amen.

1. Read more about WeCroak in The Atlantic here.
2. If you want a chuckle, you can watch the whole commercial here.

One thought on “Ash Wednesday: Morbid, Hopeful Humor for Another Year’s Journey

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