A year ago Ash Wednesday…
It is about this time of night(1) I have not come home from church, but instead I am sitting alone in Roberts Forest at KPUMC. The fire pit is dying down. (This is an actual picture….)
I’m praying a lot.
I’m playing guitar.
And I’m doing some pretty intense crying.
We’ve just concluded our Ash Wednesday worship. In an abundance of caution over the continuing Omicron variant, our service was outside. Symbolically, this allowed us to gather around the fire pit and meditate on ashes and on fire.
I had told the staff I was going to stay just a moment more. That I’d put out the fire and quickly leave after then as well.
But that wasn’t really true. Instead, I settled in for my own personal Ash Wednesday quiet time. The reason was the slowly developing news about my Mother of the previous few weeks.
Just the week before, Mom had failed multiple cognitive tests. Her doctor determined she had lost about 35 pounds in four months.
We didn’t have a full diagnosis yet, but we all knew that something *was* wrong. Seriously wrong.
Not even a week after this night, tests would confirm the large mass on her colon that would end her life just five months later.
But that night, sitting around that fire, I knew enough. I knew that one way or another my Mother was gravely ill. I had an intuition that it was the beginning of the end.
And so, I cried and prayed to God. I asked that if it was the end, that the end would come quickly and with little pain.
I’m grateful that Mom’s last months were indeed, more or less, pain free and that her end was months, not years; even as my understanding of prayer is that God isn’t a personal cosmic slot machine.
Ash Wednesday is all about looking straight on at our mortality.
Our society is not very good at this. Some churches aren’t either.
But churches that commemorate Ash Wednesday look at mortality head on, as worshippers hear the words:
“Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Mom herself prepared me for her own death. On an Ash Wednesday decades before, when I was a young preacher, I’d said this very line to her as I applied ashes to *her* forehead. A string of other worshippers, were waiting in line behind her.
But she paused for a just moment with a deep look into my eyes that whispered…
“I know these words are true, Eric…do you? Are you ready?”
Now, eight months after her death –and years after that knowing glance she gave me– I still can’t say I *was* ready. But perhaps none of us ever really are. Even if we’re blessed to be a part of a faith tradition that acknowledges mortality, even when we have relatives who live self-aware of their own limits, coming face-to-face with death is a challenge.
Some years, we need the ritual, so that we “Remember we are dust;” because we’ve just gotten too busy for our own good and we need to be nudged to “remember.”
Other years, life puts our mortality right in front of us in full view and we know it in our gut.
The *point* of Ash Wednesday “remembering” is not macabre or gruesome fascination, but a reminder that our time is short.
Whether we have six months or six decades left, it goes quickly.
So, the second half of the Ash Wedneday message is:
“Live each day to the fullest. Turn away from habits and life that don’t bring life. Reconnect your spirit with God’s Spirit. Don’t put off your dreams, your goals, or waste precious time.”
Mom lost her own Mother when Mom was a young Mother. She lost a cousin who was like a brother at a young age too. And, finally, even her younger sister died well before she did.
So even as a young woman, Mom became well acquainted with an understanding that life is short and that therefore we should live each day to the fullest.
Therefore, long before I understood the Ash Wednesday duality —mortality, and living fully each day— as a church ritual, my Mother embodied it for me with her life.
She embraced sorrows and grief.
But she lived well and also knew great joy.
So a year ago tonight, on Ash Wednesday, I followed Mom’s wisdom to sit with my grief. Because I knew that’s what she would do.
I cried. Prayed. Played guitar. Cried again.
It was the first of many painful yet cathartic moments, spread out over the next months.
A year later, the wincing pain is gone, even as the memory of that night remains.
Therefore, the resolve of *this* Ash Wednesday is…
I am dust.
To dust I shall return.
And so, while I have life and breath, to honor my Mom, and the gifts I have been given, I’ll live each day to the fullest.
How about you?
- These words were written last evening, but posted here today.