"Ash Wednesday" by Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath
“I am so afraid,” she whispered to me. “Please don’t go.”
She was alone, and she was dying. She was dying hard. It was not a peaceful death, or one surrounded by loved ones. She was afraid, and needed a witness.
It was and is so understandable. Death can be terrifying. We’re bad at talking about it as a culture. We’re not always good at talking about it as a church even. It can feel utterly terrifying.
But, I have news for us all. We are all going to die. I am going to die. You are going to die. We are all going to die. I know it’s not considered a thing you talk about in polite company, but there it is.
Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent and the day in the church calendar that we are called upon to face our own mortality. I am confessing a secret that it is one of my very favorite days of the entire church year. It is the day that we are called upon to face the deep truth that as mortals we are dust, and to dust we shall return. This beautiful, wild, precious life (as Mary Oliver would say) we are living right now shall not always be.
It can be scary, but I find it a little bit refreshing. After all, we live in a culture that tells us if we work hard enough, have enough money, buy enough skin care products, eat healthy enough, or exercise with enough vigor, we might just live forever. And yet, we know that is not true. So today, we proclaim the truth that we shall return to the dust over which God first breathed life.
And I, at least, breathe a sigh of relief. Because admitting and facing my own mortality, allows me to admit that God is God and I am not (and we should all be very thankful for that). It allows me to lay down my attempts to manage my own human brokenness, and step into the deep and holy mystery that is the Christian life. Having confessed my sins, and admitted my own mortality, it allows me to live freely this incredible, mortal life that is my reality right now.
But perhaps more than that, it helps me to let go of my fear. Because Ash Wednesday reminds us that in spite of it all, death does not have the last word. While we and others have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, God has destroyed death. As the pastor lays her hands on my forehead to impose ashes, I hear the quiet words of Matthew’s gospel mixed with hers: “Be not afraid. I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it cuts through the crap. It gets to the heart of the very heart of everything. It reminds of God’s infinite promises to us. It reminds us there is beauty in our brokenness, and freedom that we don’t have to live up to some earthly falsehood about perfection.
So, shout it from the roof tops, sing it in your heart, whisper it quietly to yourself, but tell that truth... Then, breathe a sigh of relief and be free. O mortal, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Thanks be to God indeed.
A big SALT thank you to Heidi Carrington Heath, pastor, queer, femme, amateur runner, amateur politico, and Interim School Minister at Phillips Exeter Academy for this lovely essay that was originally published in February of 2015.