I knew a woman in another city
who only attended church
on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
She grew up Roman Catholic
but had long since ceased to be a church-goer.
Neither her husband nor children were church-goers.
So she satisfied her liturgical desires
with the two grimmest events on the Church calendar.
I get it.
They are utterly authentic moments
that face mortality
in strange but compelling ways.
So, ”Happy” Ash Wednesday.
Remember that old Hallmark verse,
“This is the first day of the rest of your life?”
Well, on Ash Wednesday,
we can say this is last day of the rest of your life.
So happy Ash Wednesday.
Seriously, Ash Wednesday
is a reality-check on our personal mortality.
That is what it means when we say,
“ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
It’s crazy really, this thing we do today.
What other organization or business in their right mind
would create an event around personal death awareness –
except a funeral home, maybe.
In a culture that denies death,
Ash Wednesday is very counter-cultural.
It is like watching the Muppets during the Super Bowl.
Ash Wednesday is designed
as an imaginative visitation to our own funeral.
What are they saying about you at yours?
What, at your death,
will be the measure of your life?
Although we cannot measure any
single human life,
because we touch more,
and influence more
than we will ever know…
what will they say about you at your funeral?
At my Dad’s funeral
all the speakers, unbeknownst to one another,
focused on the same word: “Integrity.”
What word might we coalesce around
at your funeral?
So today is a reality-check with our mortality.
We are going to die,
and when we do,
will our lives have been a
sacrament of loving
or a life of loving things?
Will we have been a sacrament
of things compassionate
or of things self-orbiting?
A sacrament remember,
is an outward and visible sign
of an inward and spiritual substance.
You and I are sacramental.
You are a sacrament.
We are outward and visible signs
and the question is what?
What are you
an outward and visible sign of?
What is the substance
that lives inside you –
but that that shows itself on the outside?
Designing your own headstone
is another great Ash Wednesday parlor game.
What will they put on it?
One of my all time favorite headstones
is in a magnificent old cemetery in Buffalo, New York.
It is a relatively simple headstone
surrounded by huge pretentious monuments,
but it reads simply: “Be right back.”
Is there a phrase,
or even a single word,
that your family and friends might emblazon
across your headstone?
Last one standing?
When they gather round after you are buried or scattered,
and your family and close friends are sitting together
eating all that good food,
what stories will they tell?
Which stories will they tell about you,
and what kind of picture will those stories paint?
(I hope my children remember to tell the story
about the time my older sister
locked me outside on the balcony – naked).
So Ash Wednesday is counter-cultural.
It is a moment to stop denying death;
to stop running on the treadmill of frenetic activity
that gives us the illusion
that life won’t go on without us.
It is a time stop the world and sit in church,
listen to some oddball ask us to
think about our own funeral…and then,
most peculiar of all,
to have ashes, the symbol of our nothingness,
rubbed in our face.
Wow, how great is that?
But seriously, how great is it?
Ash Wednesday is an amazing sign of health in our tradition.
It is an incredible gift we give ourselves
when we stop and consider our lives
in the context of our death.
It is in the face of our mortality
that we ask ourselves truly important questions,
and see our lives from an extremely different angle.
It is in the face of our mortality
that we can ask ourselves
how we want to change,
and what we want to do more or do better –
now that we have a little more time left?
So congratulations for being here, really.
It is not something that everyone is willing to do.
And yet…and yet, it is a deeply authentic moment
from which we can cull profound and intimate wisdom.
So good for you, for being here;
for doing this;
and for asking the tough questions
in the face of our own mortality.
“Happy,” Ash Wednesday.