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Reflection on Ash Wednesday

From dust, to dust

While in seminary, four of us students set out to walk the outdoor labyrinth at Sinsinawa on Ash Wednesday. Actually, the trip was a mistake. We scheduled it on Ash Wednesday because we forgot what day it was. We decided to go anyway, and it was the best worship experience I can remember from my time there.

We entered the walk path one after another, giving enough space between us. I was the last to go in, which made me last to reach the center. I remember sitting in silence with the others. It was a slightly brisk night, so I wore a windbreaker. The sun had set, and the path was lit by torches. The time and space felt ordinary and sacred all at the same time. It was as if the two worlds had collided and truly become one. Sitting in the dust in silence, with the slight wind chilling me, I experienced the most powerful Ash Wednesday to date.

From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.

Those are the words typically used during the imposition of ashes in the sign of the cross on foreheads in liturgical services.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Those are the words typically used a funerals.

There is a reason they sound so similar. We are all born, live our lives, and then die. That is the common thread that defines mortality. It is the pattern of existence that we all share. What we don’t share are the details that make up our individual stories.

Many people consider Ash Wednesday to be a morbid holy day. The service can be heard as an echo of a funeral. The hymns sound like dirges. We are told that we are all going to die. And the silent procession moves through a darkened room. And (I suspect usually) the emphasis in the end is on how the eternal life of Christ overcomes the darkness of death. Indeed, we don’t have to die; we can live eternally through Jesus Christ. It’s no wonder many Christians don’t highlight the evening on their calendars.

As for me, Ash Wednesday is actually my favorite holiday. There’s a good chance it’s because of the wannabe-goth in me. But I would prefer to think that it is because my spirituality has become more “human” through the years. Indeed, I believe my yearly Ash Wednesday reflections have contributed to my human-centric spiritual perspective.

The problem with the standard Ash Wednesday service is the way it portrays life. By focusing on a hope of eternal life through Christ, it takes our mortal life and makes it secondary to the “real” life that is to come. Today becomes nothing but a transition into tomorrow. It is as if this life is mainly to be endured until we are liberated from it and launched into something far better. This theology simply doesn’t speak to where I am in my spiritual life any more.

I have come to experience Ash Wednesday as not a dismissal of, but a celebration of what it means to be a mortal human being. Yes, the grim reaper will come, but that’s not really the point. While it might be the “end” of our story, it is the end of a story that creates the story’s meaning. It is our awareness of the end that causes us to reflect on what is really important in this life. It nudges us to ask ourselves what it might mean for us to live vitally. As a dramatic celebration of human existence, it draws us into contemplating how we are part of a larger whole that is humanity itself, an identity that extends well beyond our own personal time and space.

Exciting as that interpretation is, however, I think I may have started to pass through even that.

I love Annabelle (my cat) and Loki (my dog). Later this month, we will celebrate Annabelle turning nine years old and Loki turning one. This will surely affect my evening meditations as it will be our first Ash Wednesday together. I will ponder the mistakes I’ve made with them. And I will relive our successes. Our life together has truly been filled with ups and downs. My fantasy would be that our time together would never ever end. But, the truth is that the end comes, whether we want it or not. If I were to estimate the odds based on age, Annabelle will die first, then Loki, then myself. The thought of losing either one of them pains me. But it also helps me to remember that I have a chance to give them a shot at amazing lives.

This is where I think I am growing. No, Annabelle and Loki aren’t human. Regardless, together we form a household. They are like family to me. And they are helping me to realize that Ash Wednesday isn’t about our mortality; it’s about mortality itself. It isn’t about that which makes human life meaningful; it is about that which makes all life meaningful (which includes cats and dogs). Just as the end of a story makes the rest of it significant, death claims the mortal life that we experience as mundane and transfigures it into the most sacred part of our existence. I feel as though the human-centric spirituality that I have embraced is changing into something else. Life is meant to be truly lived, whether it is human or not.

I’m not sure how this shift is going to affect me yet. And who knows, maybe I will return to where I have been after some time. This is all yet to be seen. Regardless, may we, and all creatures around us, live life to its fullest. And may we humans contribute to the fullness of life around us wherever we can.

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