One of the greatest gifts to me as a priest is the privilege to spend time with people as they are dying. To listen to their final thoughts and prayers, sometimes coherent, sometimes not. To match my own breathing with theirs. To hold hands with family and friends around the bed, to anoint with oil the forehead of someone right on the edge, to kiss the cheek of someone who has just passed over. It is as if I have one foot in this world and another in the next. And it always feels hallowed and beautiful.

This kind of a gentle brush with death is a brush with the holy in the truest sense of the word – it  produces fear and trembling and tangible grace. A brush with death with all its power and intimacy enlivens my own life and helps me to reprioritize. A brush with death feels like a rehearsal for my own. Or for someone close to me. And every rehearsal with death is life-giving.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, and we have a symbolic brush with death here, too. Ashes are a symbol of our mortality. Throughout history, ashes have signified a period of mourning, or in the Old Testament of ruin and devastation. Ashes are all that’s left after the fire has gone out. You know, as Christians, we are promised life after death, but we are never promised life without death. None of us escapes that truth. Some of us will die sooner rather than later. Lent is the perfect time to contemplate our own death. Lent begins with the smudge of ashes on our foreheads to remind us that we start this physical journey as dust and that’s how we end it as well. Today is the day where we fully acknowledge that these bodies are temporary. And we remember that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience rather than physical beings having a spiritual experience.

The culture in which we live and work fears death. The culture in which we live separates us from the experience of death and labels it bad. The culture in which we live wants us to think that we can have life without death, if we can just buy this car or take this pill. It’s wonderful that many of us are living so much longer, but we have lost sight of what indigenous cultures know in their bones: death is a part of the cycle and if we avoid death, all we do is end up avoiding life as well.

Death and destruction give birth to creation. Christ had to really die before he could be resurrected. It’s a false paradigm for us to think of life vs. death, like good vs. evil. It’s much more wholesome, more wholistic to accept death as part of the cycle. Our seasons illuminate this for us every year. We are just on the cusp – please God – of winter moving into spring where new things grow, the creation will be at it’s fullest in the summer and then it all beings to move through autumn towards winter and death again. It is in embracing the entire cycle that we are most blessed. It is in loving life and death, loving life with death, that we know ourselves as children of the resurrection.

So I have some questions for you, for your Lenten journey tonight and for the next forty days.

What season of your life are you in right now?

What is dying inside you right now?

What can you let go of this Lent and leave behind forever because you no longer need it?

How would you live your life this Lent if you knew it was your last one?

What is the one thing you regret the most? and what are you most proud of?

What is the one thing you’ve never been able to say? (It is still in your throat waiting to be spoken.)

What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?

We laugh about it. Ash Wednesday invites us not to shy away from our death but to look into it. To try it on, to hold the tenuousness of our living close to our dying. 

We come to church on Ash Wednesday to have ashes smudged on our foreheads and to meditate on Psalm 51 with its plaintive cries to God: Have mercy on me, wash me through and through, purge me from my sin, create in me a clean heart, cast me not away, deliver me from death. We come to church tonight to fall on our knees and recite the beautiful and incriminating Litany of Penitence. Finally, we come tonight to be fed by the generous and forgiving body and blood of Jesus Christ once again, to eat at the heavenly table which is a foretaste of things to come. It’s pretty clear to me that if you are in this room tonight, you did not come here to stay the same. So I pray that you have a surprising Lent, a holy Lent that shakes you up and moves you to new places. A Lent that cleans you out and clarifies who you are and what you’re doing with the life you have left on this planet. I pray that you are transformed by this opportunity to live like there is no tomorrow. Amen.