Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

Passage: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

This past Saturday evening I put on my clergy shirt, threw my stole in a bag, and got in my car to drive to St. Joseph’s. My next door neighbors had just had their first baby, and I was speeding off to pray a blessing over him. They held him in their arms and cried as I prayed for a long life filled with love.

Still glowing from that miracle of new life, I left their room and was walking through the lobby when a couple saw me. “Are you the chaplain?” they asked in distress. “I’m not the chaplain, but I am a priest.” “Can you come with us?” And on the way back to the elevator I heard their story. Frank was dying. 44 years old, his cancer had metastasized throughout his body. On the way to the room his cousin asked me, “You do this a lot?” “Yeah,” I said. “I do.”  And then, tentatively, he asked, “have you ever, you know, seen a, a…” He couldn’t finish the question – too timid to hope. “A miracle?” I asked. “Yeah. Have you?” And as I looked into his almost hopeful eyes I had to tell him the disappointing truth.  “No.” Inside the room the whole family was crowded in. Frank’s mother was prostrate over her son’s unconscious body. I led the family in the “Our Father” and prayed for the Spirit to be at work, as Frank’s spirit completed its sojourn in this world.

There is a deep wisdom in the church that sets this day aside for just one purpose: to remind us of our mortality. “Remember you are dust. And to dust you shall return.” It’s not morbid. It’s simply real.

The baby being born in one room will one day become the Frank who is dying in the next.

As we remember our mortality – as we stare at its graven message scored across our foreheads in ash – its purpose is plain: Your death is certain and unavoidable. The question is, How will you live? Consider now what you want to be true of you as you reach the inevitable conclusion of your life. Who do you want to be? What character do you want to have been fostered within you?

I read a simple, yet effective message the other day.

You’re holding a cup of coffee when someone comes along and bumps into you, and you spill your coffee everywhere. Why’d you spill the coffee? Not because you were bumped. Being bumped in life is so inevitable that we accept it as a given. You spilled your coffee because there was coffee in your cup! If it had been tea, you would have spilled tea. The point is, you can fake good manners when life is pleasant, but when life rattles you (which is going to happen!) it’s going to become very clear what’s inside your cup. Is it patience and understanding? Compassion and humility? Or is it anger and bitterness and selfishness that dwells within you?[1]

Who do you want to be? How do you want to live? What changes must you make before this life reaches its end? These are the questions this day is asking.

At our Lenten Soup Suppers this year we’ll be exploring the five conversations that chaplains advise people to have with loved ones before they die – these five elemental things that should be communicated in any significant relationship:

I love you.

Thank you.

I’m sorry; please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Good-bye.

When it comes right down to it, there is nothing more important to be shared with our loved ones than these five things. But it seems to us, that if these are necessary conversations to have before we lose someone forever, how much better to have those same conversations while there are still years and years to come of a life shared together.

Jesus came to this world and, before dying on the cross, he showed us how to live the fully human life – in union with his father in heaven and in union with us. And it is this Jesus-life for which we strive.

Death has wrought its divisive work throughout this world, and death will be our end. But it is our choice of whether we allow death to permeate how we will live until that day. Will the stain of death – despair and cynicism and selfishness – consume us, or will we drink from the cup of life, that chalice of mercy and compassion?

For that will be our greater end.

“Drink this, all of you,” we’re reminded each week. “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

May the bread and the wine we consume each week fulfill its work in us, nurturing us and transforming us to resemble the Christ that we consume.

And so may we, this Lent, choose afresh how we intend to live, that we might become like Jesus, for the love of God, for the love of this world, and for the love of our own sacred lives. Amen.

[1] Several versions of this analogy exist on the internet. I couldn’t find a source for the original.

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