A couple of years ago, I talks to my confirmation students about the church year and its different seasons, and so we ended up talking about Lent and Ash Wednesday. And as we talked about the ashen cross many receive on their foreheads, and how we traditionally use the words, ‘Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’, one of the kids blurted out, “That’s pretty morbid.”
Morbid. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that word, I think Goth movement, you know, all those young people dressing in black, listening to dark music. Morbid, in my mind, is people taking death lightly, making macabre comments about it, or maybe even paying reverence to darkness, gloom, and death.
So is Ash Wednesday morbid? Well, the words traditionally spoken when the ashes are imposed, ‘Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return’, sound quite gloomy and dark. This is the day to reflect on our sin and our own mortality. For about 7 weeks now, we will focus on Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.
Is this something obsolete, something that may have had its place in the dark medieval ages, but not today, in a society where we try to cheat death as much as we can and glorify vitality? Is, what we do here today, relevant? Are we maybe scaring people away with the morbidity of this day and the whole season of Lent?
Now the original meaning of morbid actually is ‘diseased’, or ill. And, in the olden days, when cures for illnesses were limited, being ill automatically meant being closer to death. That’s why morbid sounds so much like mortuary or mortal. So the word morbid in itself is rather neutral. And I think it’s mainly our fear of being closer to death which gives the word a negative or spooky reputation.
In that sense, yes, Ash Wednesday has a morbid tinge. Because this is the day when we, very purposely, reflect on all that is ill in us, all that is not well in our lives – the day we reflect on sin, our own and the destructive powers we see at work around us. Because all is not well – just look at the news headlines,: ISIS just killed 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, there were the terrorist attacks in Copenhagen, we can feel the effects of climate change everywhere in this country now, and the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger and bigger. And then look at the issues and problems you have to deal with each and every day. All is not well, and today is the day we are honest with ourselves about it and confess it. We hurt, we grieve, we are angry, we feel struggle, we feel helpless. We are looking for answers we don’t always get.
We are not well – we are morbid in that sense. And, yes, this is scary. So scary that many, even Christians, don’t want to think about it.
However, this is not where the buck stops. The words, ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ may sound depressing, hopeless. But – think about the dust. In the beginning of the world, God created Adam from the dust. Adam, or A’dam in Hebrew actually means ‘dust’, or ‘earth’ in the sense of soil.
Dust, soil, is necessary for growth and life. God takes the dust and creates life with it. This is where we are coming from. God was there.
And to dust you shall return. Yes, we are mortal. Yes, today we purposely remember what we try to ignore for the most part. But God was there in the beginning, creating life – and we believe that God will be there in the end, as we return to dust; we have the and faith that God, once more, will create, that God will make new, and make US new.
Ash Wednesday is not only a day to reflect on how morbid we are. Ash Wednesday is not only a day to look toward the grave, to look at what we all inevitably and eventually have to face; Ash Wednesday is also a day of remembrance – where we are coming from. And, knowing that we are coming from God, we also remember what our destination is – God. We are embraced by God’s presence, but God’s love and care. That’s what Jesus died for. To break the morbidity of our sin, to break the morbidity of our existence.
Our past and our future are with God – and our present as well. We heard the words from the Apostle Paul earlier, ‘Now is the acceptable time’ for God to listen to us, ‘now is the time of salvation’.
Not all is well. We are morbid. But, embraced by God, yesterday, today, forever, NOW, we can be confident that all will be made well.