The denial of death . . . it’s all around us. When people die, they are often alone, sequestered in hospitals far away from the sad eyes of friends and family. If someone happens to die at home, the corpse is quickly sent away from the grieving relatives. In polite society, one doesn’t talk much about death. And when it’s necessary to say something that has to do with dying, nifty euphemisms keep us from confronting the brute facts. When I lived in California, people would say, “Uncle Fred passed away.” In Texas, for some reason, people are more succinct, saying, “Uncle Fred passed.”
Of course, our own fears concerning our own demise match our cultural squeamishness about death. We don’t want to think about our own mortality, and we do many things to pretend that its not approaching. We dye our graying hair. We cover our age spots with make up. We get cosmetic surgery to preserve the image of youth. Rarely do we seriously think about our own death. As a pastor, I’m amazed at how unusual it is for someone to make plans for his or her own memorial service, or even to leave notes for the family. These are things we’d rather not have to bother with.
I’m reminded of a story told by my friend Tim, who was a restaurant manager. Part of his job was to explain the company’s benefit package to his new employees. One time, Tim hired a young man who didn’t speak English very well because he had recently immigrated to the United States. Tim explained the vacation policy, sick leave, and health insurance, all without incident. Then he came to the life insurance. He said that if the employee died, his family would get $25,000.
At this point, the employee had a shocked look on his face, and said, “No, no, Tim!”
Tim wasn’t sure he had been clear, so he explained, once again, “Look, if you die, your family will get $25,000.”
Again, the employee was unhappy. “No, I don’t want it,” he said urgently.
“Why not?” Tim asked. “If you die, this will be good for your family.”
“But Tim,” the employee cried, “I don’t want to die!”
Ash Wednesday is a day to stare death in the face, to acknowledge our mortality. All of us will die. Christians who observe this holiday get ashes “imposed” on their foreheads, while a minister or lay church worker says, “You have come from dust, and to dust you will return.” In other words, “You are going to die. And here are some ashes to remind you, just in case you’ve forgotten.”
For sixteen years of Ash Wednesday services at Irvine Presyyterian Church, I put ashes on the heads of older adults, some of whom had serious cancer and didn’t live much longer. I also put tiny black crosses made of ash on the foreheads of babies far too young to realize what was happening to them. I imposed ashes on teenagers and senior citizens, on men and women, on boys and girls. All of these I reminded of their mortality, and they freely received the reminder. “You are dust,” I said, implying, “You are going to die.”
What gives us such freedom to think about death? Are we Christians morose? Do we have some peculiar fascination with dying? I don’t think so. Rather, what allows us to stare death in the face is the assurance of life, real life, eternal life. When we know our lives are safe in the hands of God, and that this physical life is just the beginning of eternity, then we’re free to be honest about what lies ahead for us. We can face death without fear or pretending because we know the One who defeated death.
I’ll never forget my last visit with a dear member of my congregation named Helen. She was a tiny woman when healthy, but old age and disease had ravaged her body. I wouldn’t be surprised if she weighed 75 pounds on the day of my last visit.
There was no question that Helen was soon to die. And there was no point for me to pretend as if that weren’t true. So I asked her straightaway: “Helen, it’s obvious that you don’t have too much time left in this body. How are you feeling about dying?”
“Mark,” she said with a weak but confident voice, “I’ve lived a good, long life. I’ve been blessed far beyond what I could have hoped. You’re right, my body is giving out. I don’t have much longer to live. But I want you to know that I am ready. I’m not afraid. I’m eager to see my Lord. I hope I get to soon.”
Talk about staring death in the face! What gave Helen such unusual bluntness and boldness when it came to her own imminent death? Her faith in God. Her confidence that her life was really just beginning. Her assurance that her soul was safe in the hands of a gracious, loving God.
And so it is for Christians on Ash Wednesday. We can face death. We can admit our own mortality. We can talk openly about the limits of this life. Why? Because we know that through Christ we have entered into life eternal, the fullness of life that will not end when our bodies give out.
The emotional result of Ash Wednesday observance isn’t depression or gloom, but gratitude and new energy for living. When we realize how desperately we need God, and how God is faithful far beyond our desperation, we can’t help but offer our lives to him in fresh gratitude. And when we recognize that life doesn’t go on forever, then we find a new passion to delight in the gifts of each and every day, and to take none of them for granted.
One year, as I returned to my seat after imposing ashes upon dozens of worshipers, I sat next to my 12-year-old son. I couldn’t help but notice the prominent black cross on his forehead, placed there by another leader. All of a sudden it hit me that my dear boy will die someday. Though I knew this in principle, I had never really thought about it before. My boy won’t live forever. His life, like mine and that of every other human being, will come to an end. At that moment I prayed that God would give Nathan a long and blessed life. And then I hugged him for a good minute, treasuring the life we share together.
How grateful I am for the grace of God that allows us to stare death in the face so we can live with greater passion and delight! And how thankful I am for a day that allows me to think about death so I can cherish life even more!