I have been thinking about death a lot lately. We lost one of our beloved parishioners yesterday, and another parishioner is sick enough that we have been talking about death. The journeys with those parishioners have made death much more present for me. Then, last week I was listening to an interview with Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper who talked about how he nursed his father through to death. Cooper explained how the death of his father dramatically changed Cooper’s perspective on life – how that last gasp of air by his father was the very moment that Cooper’s entire worldview shifted. Then, just this weekend I watched a film called 50/50, a dramatic comedy that chronicles the way a 27 year-old deals with a cancer diagnosis that gives him only a fifty percent chance of survival. At every turn, death seems to be whispering to me.
Part of my job as a priest is to bring a certain sobriety about death as death approaches. That is not to say that I am a party pooper, but my role is to name the truth that is approaching – earthly death and reunion with our Lord in eternal life. In fact, the Church is one of the few places left in the world that openly and regularly talks about death. In a world that encourages anti-aging treatments, who has desensitized us to death as we have moved away from an agricultural lifestyle, and whose medical advances have extended life much longer than before, we learn that death can be conquered and should be fought at all costs.
Pushing against this secular understanding of death, the Church gives us Ash Wednesday. The Church looks at our flailing efforts to preserve life and as we are humbly kneeling at the altar rail, rubs gritty ash on our heads and says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” There is no, “Don’t worry about death; you’ll be fine!” Instead those grave words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” echo in our heads, haunting our thoughts. Every year the Church reminds us of the finite amount of time we have on this earth.
This is why I love Lent so much. The Church dedicates forty days to a time where we cut to the chase and honestly assess our relationship with God. We take a sobering look at our lives, a sobering look that could be reserved only for the time of death, and we discern what manifestation of sinfulness has pulled us away from God. Our Prayer Book defines sin as “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”[i] Lent is the season when we focus on repentance from our sin – not just a feeling guilty about our sinfulness, but eagerly seeking ways to amend those relationships and turn back toward resurrection living. What most people get only at the time of death, we are given every year at the time of Lent: a time of sobering realignment.
This is why we get Matthew’s gospel lesson on Ash Wednesday. As we begin our sobering Lenten journey, the gospel lesson names disciplines and practices that can help us along the way. Jesus names those ancient practices that have brought people back to God for ages – giving alms, praying, and fasting. Each one of these practices has ways of bringing us closer to God by shaking up our normal routines. Of course, any Lenten practice can have the same effect. Giving up caffeine, taking on a new fitness regiment, or reconnecting with nature are equally valid ways to shake up our routines enough to notice the ways in which we have become more self-centered than God-centered. Although Jesus names the disciplines of alms giving, prayer, and fasting, the actual discipline itself is not the issue for Jesus. The issue is our intentions in our practice.
This is why we hear Jesus labeling so many people as hypocrites in our gospel lesson today. Jesus is less concerned about what disciplines we assume and is more concerned about the authenticity behind those disciplines. Jesus is not arguing that private acts are authentic and public ones are inauthentic by nature. What matters is the desire and motivation behind these practices. We have all seen this in action. One of my favorite comediennes jokes about this very behavior in one of her shows. She talks about how people sometimes use prayer requests as a means of gossip. In one of her jokes, she has the gossiper of the church inviting people into a prayer circle so that they can pray for someone in the church who just got pregnant, even though the news was supposed to be private. We all know the kind of hypocritical behavior Jesus is addressing. This kind of behavior will never get us to the sobriety we need to right our relationship with God and others.
Of course, any kind of practice we take up this Lent can be corrupted. The giving up of a particular kind of food can be more for weight loss than a connection to God. The taking up of a volunteer activity can be to fulfill a requirement for something else. Whatever we do this Lent, that deprivation or incorporation is meant to help us restore our relationship with God, other people, and all creation. So when we give up a food, instead of glorying in the fact that we lost a few pounds, we can instead see how that food has become an emotional crutch that keeps us from leaning on God and others. When we take on a new prayer routine, we slowly begin to see how little time we give to God in our daily lives. Whatever our practice, Jesus is concerned that authenticity be at the heart, so that we can more readily prepare for Good Friday and Easter.[ii]
And so, in order to shake us out of our self-centered, sinful, distant ways, Ash Wednesday gives us death. Ash Wednesday grittily, messily, publicly reminds us of our death, and then leaves us marked so that we can humbly enter into a Lenten reconnection with God. Ash Wednesday throws death in our faces so that we can wake up in a world that would have us keep striving for longevity of earthly life instead of striving for intimacy with God here and now. This Ash Wednesday, our ashes are the outward reminder of the sobering journey we now begin, because only when we consider our own death can we begin to see the resurrection glory that awaits us at Easter. My prayer is that our journey this Lent is not one of painful guilt, but instead one of glorious reconnection with our creator, redeemer, and sustainer. Amen.