What is Ash Wednesday all about, anyway? The Scripture readings appointed are all about fasting and self-denial, and the right way to do that. (All of us posting photos of our #ashtag or sharing ashes in the most public place we can find are Doing It Wrong, btw. Jesus is very clear about that in today’s reading from Matthew 6. But that’s another blog post). The day itself, though, points to more than just an invitation to a holy, properly-observed Lent. This is the day when we remember that we are going to die.
We hate remembering that we are going to die. In her new book Churchy, my real life seminary friend Sarah Condon tells the story of how back in the day, everyone’s house had a front parlor. The front parlor’s purpose was to host the bodies of your dead relatives the night before they were buried. Can you imagine? Having dead bodies inside your house? It gives me the vapors just to think about it. After the Civil War, Sarah says, we built separate, far away funeral parlors to hold our loved ones’ bodies, and renamed the front room in our homes the living room. Because we will live forever.
This separation of death from life, from being the normal way of things for mortals has only increased our fear of it. Not only is death, you know, a final(ish) separation from those we love, it is foreign to us. We don’t even say that someone has died. They’ve “passed away” or “gone on” or “been lost.” As Dumbledore says, fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.
As a matter of fact, my internet friend David Henson made his own connection between the Harry Potter series and Ash Wednesday on Facebook this week. He pointed out that much of the series is about fear (that’s true – think of the dementors). I would argue that it’s specifically about fear of death. Harry spends the entire series missing his dead parents, and his longing to see them guides his choices, even when those choices are bad ones. Voldemort’s whole raison d’etre is escaping death (his name literally means “flight from death”). He is willing to do evil, murderous actions if it will prevent him from having to die.
I’m worried that we might have some Voldemort-ish tendencies, you guys. I’m worried that our fear of death, this “devastating impossibility that always happens”* leads us to make bad choices. How many refugees are now suffering because we fear that admitting them might one day lead to us dying? How many black men have been shot because a white person was convinced they were about to die (even though there was no rational basis for that fear)?
We can’t make our choices based on the paralyzing terror we have of death. Christians, especially, can’t. David Henson made another point about Harry Potter and fear: it is on that long, cold-blooded walk toward Voldemort, the walk that he knows will end with his death, that Harry takes the Golden Snitch, and presses it to his lips, and says, “I am going to die.” He embraces this truth, and in that embrace, he finds himself liberated. Because we can’t flee from death. We can’t escape it. That leads only to wrong choices. But on Ash Wednesday, we take that Snitch, we mark our foreheads with ashes, and we declare that we are going to die. And we are liberated. Liberated by the resurrection stone that lies within, the resurrection that is the gift of Christ, waiting for us on the other side of Lent, at Easter.
We are all going to die. But death has no power over those who do not fear it. The only escape we have requires us to go through death and experience the resurrection that Christ offers within.
*From Churchy, by Sarah Condon, p. 71