Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
This summer, about a month before our family moved here, I sat in a nursing home holding my grandpa’s limp hand as he recovered from a double-whammy of pneumonia and sepsis. He is 88 years old, so in theory it should not have been a shock to see the reality of death approaching for my grandfather, but for my 35 years of life, my grandpa has been a healthy, active presence. And there he was, obviously old, frail, and struggling for life. Thanks be to God he miraculously recovered to be living independently again in his hometown in South Dakota but I know that one day it’ll happen. He won’t be with us forever; such is true for all of us. You all are so flattering to me in recognizing my youth, but I look in the mirror and see the wrinkles and the gray hairs and occasionally reflect on my own mortality. In our house, we are more often than not surrounded with the joy and celebration of growing life as our kids seem to grow inches in a matter of days (especially their feet, we are constantly buying bigger shoes!). Yet, one of the hardest days I’ve ever had as a parent was to mark my 6-month-old daughter Erin’s forehead with a cross of ashes as she came forward with Rich like everyone else on this holy night for her first Ash Wednesday. My child, this new life I brought into the world, she, too, is mortal, I was reminded.
We are going to die. This is a day to remember that fact, however unpleasant. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” I will tell you all as you come forward to receive a reminder of your mortality on your foreheads with ashes. We bear that sign of the cross to others, to we who know each other very well, so well that it’s very painful to think about these losses, and to the world who may not know us and find this Ash Wednesday practice pretty strange and depressing.
And yet…Jesus reminds us tonight to store up our treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. There’s a silver lining to this reminder of death on our foreheads tonight. I recently came across an article that noted that millennials (my generation) have a more positive or realistic view of death than previous generations. They have created apps to help people my age with funeral and estate planning. There is an app you can subscribe to that will alert you five times a week that you’re going to die. Supposedly, in being reminded this frequently of your mortality, you are inspired to more deeply treasure the present moment of life that you have and can live life more fully. I find this a bit much. It’s good to be reminded that we’re mortal occasionally, it’s also important to be reminded to live life to the fullest! I certainly can agree with the idea in the sense that I deeply treasure the time I have left with my grandpa, and all the time I can possibly enjoy with my children and other family and friends. The reminder that we’re going to die can help us enjoy the present, but also think about what’s beyond this life, and what we as Christians can look forward to when our time on earth has ended.
As Christians, we have a claim to a treasure that will still be there for us even after we die. We don’t just smudge ash indiscriminately on ourselves and others today, we use the specific shape of the cross of Christ. That same cross of Christ was marked with oil on our foreheads at our baptism when the pastor said “Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” I say those same words at the commendation of the dying, what the Catholics used to call “last rites.” Again, I use oil to retrace my fingers over the mark of the cross from baptism. The ash washes off, the oil rubs off, but the mark of our baptismal cross doesn’t leave us. The cross of Christ proclaims a message of hope in the face of death – yes, we are going to die. And Christ dies along with us. But “if we are united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his,” Paul says in Romans chapter 6. We have a treasure in heaven, that nothing can consume or destroy, where our heart is united with God’s heart. This promise helps us savor the moments God gives us in life here on Earth, but this promise from God also helps prepare us to face death unafraid as we look forward to our eternal reward. It is true that to dust we shall return, but in that returning we also return to the Lord, the prophet Joel reminds us, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. In marking the cross of Christ on our foreheads this Ash Wednesday, we give thanks to God for a true treasure that can’t be destroyed or wear out. It is God’s promise to us. This good news is what we have to live for! Thanks be to God. Amen.