Ten years ago during Ash Wednesday of 2002, I was a chaplain at Luther Hall in Minneapolis. Luther Hall was what you would probably call a nursing home, though the people there were at various stages in their lives; some were transitioning from surgery, back to home or to another facility; but some were there for the long haul, or short haul as it might happen. There were people there who were basically at death’s door. Some died immediately, others had a longer leave taking.
It was during that Ash Wednesday, that I, a seminarian finishing up the last requirement before ordination was helping in the administration of the ashes. We had a service on that day in the chapel and then the two chaplains and I split up the complex and went room by room to those who couldn’t make it to the service. We had a list of people to go to and visit, and we went room by room to place ashes on their heads. Some of the folks were awake and ready to receive the ashes, and some people were asleep or not just present at this moment. Over and over again, I said the words that will be said again and again today…”Remember You Are Dust, and to Dust You Shall Return.”
I remember thinking how powerful it was to say this to people who in many cases were dying. Saying those words were not in the abstract for me, they became very real.
Methodist pastor Alan Bevere has noted on how this day is a sober reminder of our mortality. He notes:
I don’t spend much time thinking about my own death, though I know it will come sooner or later. I am well aware of the aging process going on within me and being noticed by me (and others) on the outside. Such aging is a reminder of my own mortality, which I pray will come much later than sooner, only because there is much more in life I want to experience, and because I believe God has not yet finished with me. But I know that there is no guarantee of anything. And in the big picture of things, that’s OK..
In one sense my creeping mortality is a blessing. It serves to remind me of what’s important. The older I get the things that seemed so trivial when I was younger, are more important. I have a sense of urgency to accomplish things I did not when I was thirty. I am more impatient when it comes to some matters and more patient with others. My aging reminds me of my mortality, and in so doing it also serves as a teacher. There is no age when one is too old to learn. Sadly, there are too many persons who die before they get to experience their creeping mortality; taken away much too early. So, I must remember to be thankful for the experience of aging. Not all get to journey with their mortality into old age.
I’m seven years younger than Alan and I’ve started to realize that I’m not a young thing anymore. I see my parents who are in their early 80s and late 70s and see how they move slower and can’t do the things they used to anymore. I am reminded day after day that I am facing my own mortality, my own sense of being limited by time and space.
Sometimes, Ash Wednesday is looked on as a day of being dour and focused on our sin. That is part of it, but it is so much more than that. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are finite persons and yet, we are remembered by God. For some reason, God wants to be in relationship with us even though in God’s view we last as much as a blooming flower.
Ash Wednesday is a dose of realism in our lives. We are reminded that no matter how much we try to create our monuments to self, we will end up as worm food. No one gets to escape that.
But it can also be a source of hope. We are loved by God even though we are mortal. But we also know that Christ has defeated death and we have a future hope beyond the grave.
So today, we are dust. We will become dust. But through the grace of Christ we also have hope beyond the dust.
Thanks be to God.