Ash Wednesday: A Love Song of Raw Mortality

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“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.”

So begins the t.s. eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published sometime around the beginning of World War I, a conflict unlike the world had ever seen. Eliot, for his part, seems painfully aware of his own mortality and the futility of modern life. Rather than hide from it, he jumps in with both feet. Tonight, we are right behind. Welcome to Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday calls us, like Eliot, in our own turbulent times, to stop avoiding the subject and turn and face our own mortality. So let us go then, you and I, now that evening has spread across the sky, and let us remember: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

Do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit. 

Though we have typically avoided the subject, it would seem that in our society our need to control things has superseded for a moment our fear of mortality. In the last decade or so especially, people have become more interested in letting their plans for their deaths be known long before they were ill or injured. Hospitals and funeral homes alike have been promoting end of life planning; as a hospital chaplain, I was often responsible for talking to patients before surgeries and at other times to make sure their medical wishes about things like life support were in writing on a legal document, just in case. Funeral homes and lawyers, too, have been getting into the game of end of life planning related to funerals and wills and all sorts of things. 

The particular book on the subject that I learned about recently is a planner covering everything from what happens to your belongings when you die, to your business and legal affairs, to your wishes about burial and funeral plans. I love it by its original name, which you can still purchase: it’s called, I’m Dead. Now What? Important Information About My Belongings, Business Affairs, and Wishes. It’s designed to be a guide for your loved ones once you’ve died — hence the name.

Some people, like me, loved the name, while others loved the idea but not the name. In order to get more people planning, the publishers started producing the same planner with an alternate title: the far more innocuous Peace of Mind Planner. 

For the record, if this interests you, and it probably should interest all of us, you can buy either version on Amazon. 

“Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” the voice of the prophet we call Joel echoes down through the ages. It’s like the alarm that pierces the darkness of your dreams calling you to wake up and face reality for another day. It’s not always welcome, in fact, for most of us, it usually isn’t. Today, that alarm is particularly unwelcome, calling us to remember that from dust we came, and to dust you shall return. These are the words we will tell one another as crosses are etched tenderly in ash on each of our brows with the ashes from the Palm Sunday palms we burned together on Sunday. Anyone can choose not to participate in the ritual, but no one is exempt from death. 

Sound the alarm: we will all die. In our Genesis study on Sundays, when we read the creation story, we talked about this: the Hebrew word used in Genesis when God creates a human is “adam,” [which we anglicize as the name “Adam”], which is related to the Hebrew word for earth, or dirt: “adamah.” Contrary to popular belief, it is not the word for “man” — there are other unrelated Hebrew words for “man” and “woman.” “Adam” just means “earth creature,” or maybe “dust creature.” 

From dust we came, to dust we shall return. 

Pardon me if it’s a little blunt, but: we’re going to die. Now what?

More than that, why is Jesus here talking about how looking dismal, say, putting ash on our faces, is what hypocrites do? And why did the church choose this text for today? It’s like the Church itself is making fun of us.

In this turbulent age, however, I think it’s a call to not take ourselves so seriously, but to take life as seriously as ever. Yes, today we’ll have ash on our faces. But tomorrow and the day after that, we have an opportunity: to give in secret, to do good without looking for a give-back. To pray for someone even if you don’t like them. To do what you want, to be more yourself, and to give your full self to the world.

We cannot alone do the big things. We can’t make the country less divided. We can’t stop climate change alone. We can’t stop warfare around the world. We can’t stop mass killings from happening. 

But we can do our part to make a difference. We can make our corner of the world a better place. We can give all the good we have, not so that we’ll be applauded, but so that we can help others, in the name of Jesus who gave his very life and breath willingly so that we could see what full love looks like. So that we can have more life in our years. 

Let us go then, you and I. 

Let us go down into the depths of Lent again. Because what I learned as a chaplain is the lesson of Ash Wednesday: it is only in facing death that we see the urgency in really living. It is only in admitting that we aren’t perfect that we can ever hope to do better. It is only in admitting that we are not all-powerful that we can come to appreciate a God who is.

And so here we go again: on our journey from ashes to fire. From the ashes of Wednesday to the fire of Pentecost. From death to life. Let us go then, you and I.
In Eliot’s poem, Prufrock laments:

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?”

The central question of the poem is just that: do I dare? 

“Do I dare eat a peach?” “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

Does Prufrock dare to really live? Do you?

Faced with your own mortality and the chaos in the world: do you dare? Do you dare face your own mortality, no matter how scary, and despite it all, grasp life out of it, following the one who passed through death into life before you?

Let us set our feet once again together on the dusty road of Lent with Jesus, the one who walks all our roads beside us.

“Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread across the sky…”

So let us be on our way, together, into Lent. Amen.

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