By Rev. Michael Keith
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
These somber words come at the beginning of the Lenten Season as they are spoken to us on Ash Wednesday. They aren't the most cheery words ever spoken to be sure, but they are true and they confront us with a truth that we so often seek to ignore, deny, and hide. We are going to die.
In our modern day we do most everything possible to hide the reality of death away. We don’t even like to hear people talk about death. It is almost as if we think, superstitiously, that if we talk about death someone might die! You are probably a little uncomfortable reading these words even now. We’re afraid of talking about death. We’re afraid of thinking about death. We’re afraid of death.
The Church, in her wisdom, doesn’t let our fears dictate what we think about or talk about. In fact, the Church brings us face to face with some of these difficult realities. Through Word and ritual the Church confronts us with our fear of death. And perhaps like no other time than on Ash Wednesday as the cross of ashes is placed upon our foreheads and we hear “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are very personally confronted with the fact that we will die. We are given the opportunity to look into one of the deepest questions of life: Death.
If you came to church on Ash Wednesday, or at any other time, and only heard the message “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” that would be pretty disheartening wouldn’t it? If the only thing you heard was—you are going to die—that’s it, that’s all folks—well, that would leave you without much hope. It might lead you to despair. It might lead you to wonder if there was any meaning to life at all if all it leads to is death.
That’s why I think so many people are afraid of talking or thinking about death. That’s why I think that there are so many people who have no meaning in their lives. They think this life is all there is and so they try to get all the meaning they can out of this life—but that will never work. You can’t get meaning out of the “stuff” of this life if ultimately it only ends in death. That’s why there are so many people who live lives of despair. They have no hope. They have no assurance that when they die they will have eternal life. So rather than wrestle with the inevitable – they in fear ignore it. They seek to distract themselves. They do everything they can to shield themselves from the fact that they will die.
As Christians we don’t hide from death. As Christians we face it head on. We even have a cross of ashes put on our foreheads. We are reminded that we will die. And our response? “Yes, some day I will die. Yes, I am a sinner and the wages of sin is death. But what of it? Jesus lives! And because He lives so shall I live. He has rescued from death and the grave and has opened for me the way to everlasting life!”
We don’t ignore the harsh reality of death because we have hope in the face of death! Jesus, our resurrected Lord and Saviour, has defeated death. And this gives us hope and assurance in the face of death. No, this does not mean that we just gloss over death and the way it hurts us and rips us apart. Death hurts those who are left behind in a most profound way. But even there—while we grieve and mourn—we have hope. Even in our sadness we have comfort. Even at the graveside we know that this is not the end. Yes, we hurt and suffer—but we know that we are not alone! We know that Jesus is with us as He promised in our baptism as we go through this loss.
On Ash Wednesday with a cross of ashes on our foreheads—we hear the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed to us. We hear that our sin is forgiven. We hear that our death has been defeated by Jesus’ resurrection. We hear that we have been given eternal life.
And this gives us hope. This gives us meaning in this life. We realize that there is more to life than just what we see. We realize that there is more to life than just to eat, drink, and be merry. There is a God who loves us. He loves us so that He sent His Son to die for us and to rescue us from sin and death.
Knowing that there is a God who loves us and cares for us and has prepared a place for us to live forever with Him—gives us hope. It gives us peace. We don’t have to hide from death. We don’t have to be afraid of death. For in Jesus, we have life!
Rev. Michael Keith serves as pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church and SML Christian Academy in Stony Plain, AB Canada.
Created: March 4th, 2017