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Ashes: An Outward and Visible Sign

Ashes: An Outward and Visible Sign

The Bishop's Blog

I am not a Catholic. I did not grow up attending Ash Wednesday services, or observing Lent, for that matter. In fact, we bristled a little when we came to the line in the creed about believing in the “Holy Catholic Church”. Never mind that there weren’t that many Catholics in South Georgia. This was before the great migration of Catholics to the south. That is another story.

 Not being a Catholic meant that I did not pay that much attention to whomever the Pope might be. I was reminded of that this week as Pope Benedict announced his retirement, an event that has not occurred for the past 600 years. This has also reminded me of the life, ministry and death of his predecessor, Pope John Paul, the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to capture my attention as a young adult.
I watched as John Paul was elected, and then as he was shot, and then as he forgave his assailant. Some of my Catholic friends adored him, many others could hardly bear his teachings, even if they respected him as a person. I watched as he went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and asked for the forgiveness of the Jewish people for the Catholic participation in the Holocaust. I waited for the miracle that women might be priests in the Catholic Church, or that priests might marry. It never happened.
It was John Paul, who died six years ago this past May, who coined the term “culture of death”. For him it was always juxtaposed with what he also called “The gospel of life”. The culture of death had to do with a variety of issues, all of them hot button----abortion, capital punishment, war, euthanasia. He made Democratic presidents uncomfortable with his opposition to abortion, and he made Republican presidents uncomfortable with his opposition to war and torture. 
We live, he insisted, in a culture of death. I have remembered that phrase as I have prepared for this service, for this season:   a culture of death. 
  • I have thought about the tragedy of Newtown. I learned about those mass murders, as many of you did, as I left our staff Christmas party.
  • Traveling through Sanford, I have recalled the experience of Trayvon Martin.
  • I have reflected on the deaths of migrant farm workers, many of them living in near slavery, and of men and women seeking to cross the borders into our country.
  • I have given more thought to the brain damage that is increasingly normal in a sport that I love, football.
  • I have reflected on the vulnerability of the unborn, and remembered reading an article that my daughter wrote this year about China’s “One Child” policy and forced abortions. 
  • I have prayed for the persecuted church, especially in Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Indonesia. 
On one Sunday morning in Advent, as I preached about the peace of Christ, I knew that later that most of that congregation would spend hours watching football and reflecting, perhaps, on an incident of domestic violence that weekend in which an NFL player murdered his wife and then killed himself.
 A couple of weeks later we would then spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with our two younger daughters. In the city where our younger daughter lives, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the largest public gathering on the Sunday before Christmas, on the Sunday morning before Christmas, was a gun show at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which often hosts Wake Forest University basketball and other large sporting events. Not the worship of the Prince of Peace, on the Sunday morning, the Lord’ s day preceding the celebration of his birth. And this was two weeks after Newtown.
We live in a culture of death.
I think of another facet of our culture of death. The wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, our nation’s longest war. I think of the 3135 Americans who have lost their lives in these wars. And yet the more disturbing reality is that last year more military personnel took their own lives through suicide than died in combat. 
One facet of our culture of death consumes us: we cannot hear enough about it. The other:  we would rather put all of this out of sight and out of mind. Our inclination is to want to move on. You may be in that kind of place just about now.
I appreciate John Paul for naming several of the manifestations of the culture of death, for we live, as a psychologist of a generation ago termed it, in the denial of death. 
Ash Wednesday is the church’s way of piercing this illusion. On Ash Wednesday we confront our mortality. On Ash Wednesday, we are marked with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return.   You and I will die, sooner or later. 
The Ashes are an outward and visible sign of that.
I think of Jesus’ warning to Peter, late in the gospel:
“When you were younger,
 you used to fasten your own belt
And go wherever you wished.
But when you grow old,
 you will stretch out your hands,
And someone else
will fasten a belt around you and take you
Where you do not wish to go”.
John 21. 18
Jesus was reminding Peter about the reality of death. But the good news is that the reality of death is juxtaposed with the gospel of life.
The dead in Christ will rise
This mortal body must put on immortality.
If a grain of wheat falls into the earth, it bears much fruit.
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
And so our realism about death forces us to confront something else: the promise of resurrection. That the church exists in a culture of death is not the end of the world. First century Rome was a brutal place. We have been here before: the devaluing of human life, the cheapening of human dignity, the horrors that are associated with terror or torture or child slavery or sexual exploitation or abortion as birth control or indiscriminate bombing or gang violence, and then there is the more subtle diminishing of human life: we have worth if we are young, productive, beautiful, attractive, wealthy. If not, we are discarded, because we are a drain on the system, or not that appealing anymore.
We mark our foreheads as a symbol of this culture of death in which we live, a culture that is somehow traced back to our fall from paradise. The ashes are an outward and visible sign of all of this.
And yet surely we pray for something more, more than flesh, more than dust, more than matter, more than this life, as good as it might be at times, more than this life. 
The psalms often give us this dose of realism, and yet there is the hint of hope, which awaits us at the end of the forty days:
To you, O Lord, I cried
And to the Lord I made supplication
What profit is there in my death
If I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me.
O Lord, be my helper.
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
You have taken off my sackcloth
And clothed me with joy.
So that my soul will praise you, and not be silent.
Psalm 30. 8-12b
And so, brothers and sisters, fellow travelers in this culture of death, but fellow pilgrims en route to the promised land, let us enter again into this season of Lent. 
Let us pray, living sacrificially within ourselves and generously toward others. 
Let us honor the sacredness of all of life.
Let us stay close to the One “who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”.   
Let us be in the world, but not of it. 
And lastly, let us look, with hope, to the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
In the name of the Father who created us,
The Son who loved us and gave himself for us,
And the Holy Spirit who renews the face of the earth. 
Sources: For estimates of war casualties, visit any of the following sites on the internet: International Committee of The Red Cross; Christian Science Monitor; Common Dreams; CNN. Or go to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death was published in 1973, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, two months after the author’s death.   See also Liz Carter, "One Woman Touches Heaven, Another Hell",