What brings you here today? Why, on your lunch break, do you find yourself in church so that you can be reminded that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? Oh, there is much death in this world! What is so appealing about such a personal reminder of our own?
Last year I spent Ash Wednesday sitting in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, at the UCSD Medical Center holding my three-day old baby. Next to us there was a child sustained by the artificial womb of an incubator — it was made of clear plastic and was shaped like a coffin. This child next to us weighed just two pounds. Our baby weighed 9.5! (He’d need to go through a round of antibiotics and then would be sent home within the week). But on that day, around us, more than fifty more babies found themselves in delicate and dire positions, few as healthy as ours. We could not make sense out of that fact.
Surely NICUs can be the most depressing places on earth. How can we make sense of sick infants? This is the stuff that makes us wonder if God really cares about us at all. Yet NICUs can also be one of the most hopeful places, too. It is a Kingdom of God place where every life matters so very much, where every effort and investment is made to sustain those tiny beating hearts. Hope is such a fragile thing here, and because hope in the NICU struggles so, it reveals a great truth about itself: hope in the starkest of circumstances demands great courage and tenacity. Day after day parents return to sit by their children and hope and pray and hope some more.
Few of us experience our lives along the dire lines of those dependent upon the NICU. But what if we did? What if we do? Ash Wednesday is a time when we confront the great truth of our death and hope all the same. It is a day when we choose to see life for what it is, to notice how much like the NICU it can be — when we acknowledge that our lives are fragile and so very precious — so very precious to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to God. Face your death and hold Jesus’ hand and hope with all your might!
I pray that God may strengthen us to seek the truth this Lent, to make this Lent holy because we have chosen to see the world more clearly and nearly as it really is: a place of beheadings and torture and unimaginable disparities of wealth and education and opportunity; and a place where God’s Kingdom is breaking through and taking hold.
I pray that God might give us the grace to see ourselves more clearly this Lent: might we have the courage to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” as any 12-Step program would require. How are we complicit in the suffering of others? How are we complicit in their despair? How are we complicit in their loneliness? Drawing from Alcoholics Anonymous is appropriate because we are addicted to our routines, to our news sources, to our assumptions and convictions about the world — and Ash Wednesday, my brothers and sisters, is the beginning of God’s intervention in our lives. This intervention begins with the stark and startling reminder that our time on earth may be short and will most certainly be limited. So how, my friends, will we live these next days, and weeks, and months, and years?
What will we seek? What will we find?
As a first-time parent four years ago I brought my three-month old baby to church on Ash Wednesday. After the months of steadily building excitement, the joy of a healthy birth, and the goofy and sleepless fun of the first few months of infancy, I was riding high on a cloud of gratitude. But I was missing something. I needed to introduce my beautiful and vigorous daughter to the world’s simplest and starkest truth: she, as I, will die.
My brothers and sisters, welcome to this holy season of Lent. Do journey this road with us alongside Jesus toward Jerusalem and toward his cross. I promise you that there is an even simpler and greater truth that God has in store for each of us, an answer for all time to the world’s simplest and starkest truth of death.
My friends, join us on our Lenten walk toward life.
The Rev. Colin Mathewson