Today you may see people walking around with a black smudge on their forehead. Do me a favor when you see them—even if you think they just look ridiculous and there is no significance to the day—stop and reflect on the frailty and enormity of life itself.
Traditionally, Ash Wednesday is connected to the times in Scripture where individuals expressed their sorrow for sin. In most services today, as people come forward, the pastor/minister/priest says something along the lines of “from dust you have come and from dust you will return, go and turn from sin. Hear the good news.” We’re called to reflect on our sinful nature, the gift of the cross and our life here and now.
But those two concepts-frailty and enormity-stick out. They seem to not fit together. At times, they even contradict one another; but that isn’t always the case. Not for those who have spent any amount of time with the sick and dying.
This is one of the many lessons I learned while in Malawi, but if I really think about it, it’s something I have been taught here as well. I just haven’t always been paying attention.
Children’s Hospital—Some of the children had lived in the hospital for months. Others, only for days. They just happened to be there today, on this day—three years ago. I was a chaplain in the Clinical Pastoral Education program and was asked to administer ashes to those who wanted them. There is nothing quite as humbling as placing ashes on a smiling sick child’s face and telling him or her that they will return to dust. It makes death a reality, a painful—seemingly unfair—reality.
Grandpa’s Inurnment—I was still in seminary, not even sure if I could “officiate” something like a committal to a final resting place. Through tears I got through the liturgy. I reflected on what my grandpa had told me before he died-that he was ready, had lived a good life and was tired. Placing the urn in the wall I said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” Time crawled to a halt as I lifted the urn into the wall. As far as I know, I was the last one to touch my grandpa’s remains.
Next week, I’ll return to a re-opened wall to place Grandma next to Grandpa.
Grandma’s Death—President’s Day 2012. I got to the hospital a half hour after she had breathed her last breath. The door of her room closed. Dad alone by her side. Grandma still; her body frozen in a position that whispered I’ve finished this race. The truth is, Grandma’s dementia and Alzheimer’s had changed her in her last few years. She’d forgotten names and how to function as she once had. But that’s not the grandma I will remember, not the strong woman who helped my dad become the man he is today or the loving Grandma who spoiled my sister and me. The woman lying in bed, the one who was done fighting, was one who had triumphantly battled for 94 years. Before we left her side, my dad brushed her hair back and whispered, “you did good mom, you did real good” (forgive his poor grammar). She had, and so had he. We walked out and it was finished.
When I place her remains next to grandpa’s urn, the Scripture I quote will be the same that many of us will hear today as the Lenten season begins. In the middle of reflecting on Christ’s sufferings, the frailty of earthly life screams in agony. But once I step back and see the magnitude of the big picture—the enormity of creation and our relationship with the Creator, the ashes and dust, death itself— I’m reminded that there is a God who cares for each of us deeply, who redeems and loves us enough to take care of all our pain and suffering.
Thank you grandma, for one more lesson.