At some level we all look for and try to create our place in life – a place where we belong, are accepted, liked, recognized, approved of, wanted, loved. To not find this place is in some way to face the reality of death, to be isolated and alone. And while we know death is real we try not to focus on death. We do not often go around looking for our place in death but rather for our place in life. And yet today that is exactly what the Church asks us to do. We are asked to find our place in death. We gather today to remember death, to acknowledge and claim our mortality. We come to be marked with ashes in order that we might wear our mortality on our foreheads as a visible reminder that we all die. We come to find our place in death.
If that is what the Church asks of us then it means the Church views and understands death and mortality differently than the rest of the world.
- Where the world is fearful of death the Church says, “Trust and do not be afraid.”
- Where the world sees death as an ending, the ultimate defeat, the Church sees birth, a new beginning, and the place of ultimate victory.
- Where the world wants to deny and ignore human mortality the Church declares, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
To not live with the continual remembrance of our death is to deny our need for God. We deny that God is our origin and our destination, our alpha and our omega. Consequently we forget that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Ash Wednesday holds before us the reality of our mortality
in order that we might open ourselves to receive God’s immortality.
We open ourselves to receive God’s immortality “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (Book of Common Prayer). These practices do not cause God to give us immortality. They simply make us available and present when that gift is given. We can never really create or establish by our own efforts our place in life. Rather, that place in life can only ever be received. The ashes of mortality remind us that it is only by the gracious gift of God that we are given an everlasting place in life.
So, find your place in death. Wear the ashes of mortality. But do not wash them off. Instead, rub them in. Rub them deep into your being and let them guide you to your place in life.