Ash Wednesday: The Day We Doubt Our Immortality
Ash Wednesday isn’t suppose to be comfortable. It’s a day when the church takes repentance public. A day when something we usually reserve for the private sphere get’s pushed into the public sphere. It’s a day when repentance becomes corporate. When repentance is there for all to see, with the sign of the cross inscribed in ash on our foreheads.
And it’s not just a time of repentance, but it’s also a time of relinquishment … relinquishment of our project of immortality.
As I wrote earlier this week:
Denial of death, for Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker, is an all encompassing explanation for human endeavors.
Death, though, for Becker has two levels of meaning: The first level is phyiscal death. After all, how many times a day do we attempt to distance ourselves from death? Do you eat healthy? Do you wear a seat belt?
The second understanding of death plays more into our discussion. This type of death can occur during life. It’s the type of death that takes place when we experience a loss of meaning, worth or affirmation. And this type of death, though it will happen eventually for us all, is what most of us work so hard to deny.
Ash Wednesday is an acknowledgement of Ernest Becker’s second type of death. It’s an acknowledgement of our mortality; an acknowledge of our finitude; and an acknowledge of our depravity.
It’s the day we repent for our denial of death. Essentially, it’s a day when we prove Ernest Becker wrong.
It does us good to remember the old saying that is found on some tombstones:
Remember friends as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.
It’s good for us to remember that the works of our hands will not last forever. That our kingdoms will fall. That America will one day be no more. That our bodies will die. That our jobs, our business, our children, our name, our political ideals, and even our religion will one day — if they are lucky — find themselves in the annuls of history. That even our Christianity as we know it will one day be rendered dead.
And maybe this type of doubt is the reason few evangelicals partake in Ash Wednesday. After all, we have fervently engaged in the project of death denial as we’ve built theological buildings that we believe will last for time eternal.
And maybe it’s right to even press this farther.
Maybe Ash Wednesday is a day when the church should allow ourselves to doubt in the life after this one. That maybe our hopes of heaven are misinterpretations of Jesus’ words. That maybe all we have is today to love and be loved. And maybe, in forgetting this next life, we might strive for life now. We might find eternal life before our death.
Ash Wednesday isn’t suppose to be comfortable. No, there’s nothing comfortable about this day.
“From dust you were made and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19