Ash Wednesday Devotional (2-16-21)
This past Sunday we received a phone call from a family member letting us know that our niece, who has been battling metastatic breast cancer for several years, had been told that she could no longer withstand the harsh chemo regimen that had been keeping her alive. She would most likely be moving into hospice and had only months, maybe less, to live. She is 38. She has a husband and two fabulous kiddos and hoards of family and friends who will shake their heads and weep, stunned and mortified when the light of her life goes out. She is the glue and the connector. She is the heart-on-her sleeve empathizer. Throughout her illness, her glass has been continuously full and overflowing with hope, with appreciation for those surrounding her, for her Lord, as she celebrated each tiny piece of good news.
Yesterday, I had to phone my three healthy adult children with spouses and children of their own to let them know that goodbye to their dear cousin and friend was eminent. At times like this it is normal, expected even, to question. “Why?” looms in front of us. The unfairness and the sadness of life pulls us toward anger, disbelief, and doubts about the meaning of life and the goodness of God.
This week is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent. Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Holy Week and the remembrance of the events of the last week of the life of Christ. Ash Wednesday is the day we are reminded of the brevity of life. “From dust you were created. To dust you will return.” We all die – it is appointed unto humankind once to die.
Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.” The early church fathers and mothers called this practice Memento Mori. They would place skulls and coffins in their holy spaces as a constant reminder that life is fleeting and they should live accordingly. It seems morbid to us who do all we can to extend life and avoid death. Our early parents in the faith did not have the medicines, the healthy food practices, clean water, seatbelts, or bike helmets that we depend on. They recognized because they lived and saw it all around them, that any given day could be their last.
Jesus died young – 33 years old. His ministry was a brief three years. His death was senseless and painful, and his followers and family were left grief-stricken and baffled, confused and numb. But in reflecting on death – his and ours – practicing Memento Mori – we come to accept what is the end of us all on earth. Acceptance of the inevitable actually works to free us to focus instead on our life. That is the wisdom Psalm 90 draws us to. It is not the, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die,” way of life, but “living each day as if it is our last and we might not have another chance” way of life.
Some have referred to the comma in the Apostle’s Creed between the phrases, “He was born of the virgin Mary, and suffered under Pontius Pilot,” as the Great Comma. So much life took place in the time between the birth and death of Jesus, even in his shortened life. You have maybe heard it before that on our tombstone, our life is reduced to the dash between the year we were born and the year we die. As you reflect on the words of Psalm 90 and enter into the Memento Mori that is Ash Wednesday, see it as an invitation to look at life – your life – and reimagine it as the opportunity that each day is. It is the opportunity to sow love and grace and peace and forgiveness to all those you cross paths with. We are appointed once to die but Jesus came to give us a life abundant. Are you living your life to the full? Are you looking at life through the lens of death in order to live life with purpose? Let it be so for us all.