I love Ash Wednesday because it reminds me that I will die. I am a product of a culture obsessed with youth and beauty. We honor the young and ignore the elderly. We worship comfort at the expense of wisdom. We refuse to consider that each of us are constantly moving closer to our own deaths. And we convince ourselves that we have control over the reality of living and dying…until the cancer, the terror, the tragedy.
I don’t know what it is about pregnancy, perhaps those millions of years (until this past century), when a woman’s body knew that giving birth meant the possibility of death. Maybe my body and my brain still haven’t connected over the existence of modern medicine and the rarity of death in childbirth for the average American woman. And so I’m feeling in these final days of pregnancy like my womb has switched on an awareness-radar, saying: Love everything! It could all end soon! The world is suddenly brighter and more fragrant. August is charming even as he whines while I’m on the phone. I’m seized by a need to stroll instead of hurry. What a strange thing to have hormones telling you you’re risking your life, possibly dying, and doing something so significant it could change the world.
So tonight, I will sit alone in an Ash Wednesday service, preparing myself to stand before a priest of the gospel and hear the words that ring the bell signaling the Lenten season: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I will feel near to death. Not like it is a monster coming at me, but like it is a sleeping terror I am allowed to approach.
The older I get, the more often I know people who have lost those they love. I’ve watched two friends lose siblings tragically in the past two and a half years. I spent the month of June two summers ago with a woman whose husband had lost his life to brain cancer when her children were preschoolers. Now they’re teenagers.
I know it's possible. The tragedy could come to me. I could be the tragedy. There’s something to sitting alone with that thought on this first day of Lent, for a mother and a wife who is never completely alone, to approach the bowl of ashes and feel them pressed into the skin that covers my brain. I am made of this. I will be this again.
The ashes tell me that I am broken. I am human, not a god, not a marvel, not a woman of accomplishment. They tell me that whatever I do with my life, this body, in all its beauty, will be the same lump of ash as the vilest criminal in prison. The ashes make me look at myself: thirty-one years old. Have I lived long enough to have become the woman I want to be? Have I loved completely?
I want to ooze hospitality in my life. I want to see the people around me as Jesus. I want to care. I want to carry peanut butter and jellies in my diaper bag to offer to those begging just blocks from my home. I want people who meet me to sense peace in my presence. I want my son to joyfully remember his childhood as full of color and kindness and rich love. I want to patiently listen to my husband instead of storing up bitterness until I lose my temper.
I’m thankful that the ashes are about more than my own death. They’re about the death of the God whose brokenness and ultimate restoration heals my failure, who brings purpose to a life that could easily be written off as ordinary.
Last year, as I sat through our Ash Wednesday service, I watched a couple carry their ten-month-old baby with them to the pastor, who marked not only their heads but their little girl’s as well. I watched them carry her back to their seats, a bit shocked at the sight of ashes on a baby’s face. I couldn’t help but consider their intentions. Were they reminding themselves of their child’s own brokenness as well? I thought: August will die. At some point he will die.
As I write this, he is asleep in his room, snuggled up with around 12 different stuffed animals. My other son, the one whose feet press into my side long enough for me to measure a length that simply should not be (those things are not going to fit on the birth certificate), is waiting for our God to give him a little shove out of me. He’ll breathe oxygen for the first time and scream at the injustice of life outside of my warmth. He will be fresh and beautiful and it won’t take long before he will be scarred.
It’s Ash Wednesday. So let these ashes remind us that what we need is not the avoidance of age, the fear of our own endings, but the glory of healing, of purpose, of life lived fully.