“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
When I hear these words every Ash Wednesday I think about mortality and death. I think about my own death. I think about the death of those I love. And I feel more than a little uncomfortable. I am probably not alone among humans when I say that death is the thing that elicits the greatest fear of all in me. It separates us from those we love the most. It is so final.
Now you may be thinking right now, “But Suzannah you are a person of faith. You should know that death is not final and that there is something more than this life.” And you are right, I do believe this. I do believe that there is something more to existence than just the time we know on earth. But the reality is that none of us here today knows what lies beyond our earthly existence. It is the great unknown, and the unknown is always frightening. The unknown is scary. When someone we love dies, they are no longer physically with us. We cannot talk with them, hug them, hold them, smell them, hear them or see them. So from our limited human perspective death is final. It is the end. It is to be feared.
It is no wonder then that most human beings spend most of their lives trying to avoid death or pretend that it doesn’t exist. How many people sitting here today have avoided going to the doctor when you knew something was wrong with you because part of you thought that if you didn’t go then maybe your illness wasn’t really real? I’ve had many conversations with people who say that they won’t make a will or deal with end-of-life issues because they don’t want to tempt fate. Or look at our medical science—so often we fight to prolong the life of a person who really is no longer alive, simply because the idea of letting them die is too terrifying for us. And so many of our everyday behaviors have to do with numbing ourselves to an awareness that our lives will come to an end—substances, food, work, leisure activities—all of these can be used to numb us to the reality that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Who wouldn’t want to avoid this stark reality. In the face of not really knowing what comes next, we cling desperately and fearfully to this life, to our lives. It is understandable and very human.
So why do we come together once a year to remind ourselves of our mortality? Why do we come forward, kneel at this altar rail, receive the ashes on our foreheads and say “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return?” Are we masochists who are trying to punish ourselves? I don’t think so. I think we do this because there is something that we miss when we cling to life out of a place of fear. When we numb ourselves and live our lives in terror and fear of death we actually miss out on most of our lives. When we live from a place of fear we cling, we shut out, we turn off, we fail to notice the life that is all around us. It is one of the paradoxes of being human. To be truly alive we have to come to a place where we truly accept that we will die.
Every year when we I hear myself saying, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” I think of a truly beautiful soul that I had the good fortune to know when I was a very young priest. I was very newly ordained when I received a phone call from the local hospice organization in the community in Ohio in which I was living. There was a 45 year old woman who had just been diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. She had been told that she had about two months to live. She wanted to see a priest. I got in my car to drive to see her and I was full of fear. What did I, a 26 year old newly ordained young woman, have to give to this woman? Nothing really. I knew nothing of what she was facing. But I am dutiful, so I went to see her. It turns out that I did have a lot to give her and she had even more to give me.
I visited this woman several times a week over the 6 months that it took her to die. It turns out that she wanted a visit from a priest, not because she was afraid of death and wanted to talk about that, but because her whole family was afraid of death and was avoiding her and she wanted to share her life with someone. She thought that maybe a priest could handle her dying and would be willing to be present with her as she continued to live her life until she died. The very first thing she said to me when I walked into her room with my face solemn and composed was, “If you are going to be my priest you will need to smile more. I am not dead yet.” She was never in denial of her death, but she believed that as long as she had breath in her body, her task was to live her life and to enjoy it to the hilt. And enjoy it she did. Her room was always full of joy and laughter and happiness. Eventually we were able to help her family join in on her living. And when she finally did die, it was a peaceful and beautiful death with her whole family at her side.
It is important as people of faith to understand that our existence on this earth is not all there is, but it is even more important to understand that our existence on this earth during this lifetime is meant to be lived, cherished, and enjoyed. We are not here to simply bide our time, staying as safe and as long as possible in this life, knowing that there will be something better on the other side. We are meant to understand that there is life to be lived right now for its own sake, and that this life won’t last forever. So seize the day. Enjoy the lilies of the field. God is not just present in what is to come after we die. God is present with us in all the ups and downs of this earthly life right here and now.
We shall return to dust that is true! But we are also called to rejoice that we were created from the dust in the first place! What if these ashes we receive are not so much about self-denial and bodily mortification? What if these ashes are about transformation? A change in how we see the world. A reminder that we were created. We are alive. God made us to be alive and to live.
Perhaps that is a challenge we can take on this Lenten season. Take on a practice that helps us to embrace our lives and to truly live. Or maybe we need to give up a practice or a way of thinking that keeps us from truly living. For God is with us in the moments of our lives, not in our running away from death. Perhaps this Lent we could spend some time each day rejoicing in the miracle that is our lives, the miracle that we exist, the miracle that God created us at all.
Yes, you shall return to dust, but rejoice that you were created from the dust at all!