Viruses, missiles, and ashes: learning to die
The trouble with normal is that it doesn’t exist. Whatever we previously believed to be normal life was smokescreen and subterfuge, obscuring tragedies, injustices and every sort of emergency.
For the past two years, the world has been lamenting the loss of normal during the COVID-19 pandemic, pining for a return to some form of normal.
For the past week, the world has been staggered by the ugly invasion of Ukraine, the naked military aggression where life and liberty hang precariously.
Yet neither war nor pestilence are interruptions to normal. As C.S. Lewis noted in his sermon Learning in Wartime, they create “no absolutely new situation” but rather simply aggravate “the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” Life has always been fraught and fragile.
COVID-19, and now the assault on Ukraine, fills our push notifications with what we desperately try to push to the edges of our consciousness: the reality of death.
Ash Wednesday has kept this lane for centuries. On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Christian season of Lent, worshippers receive the sign of the cross smudged on their foreheads and hear the words, like tolling bells: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As a pastor, I’ve been reminding people of their inevitable demise for years - children and seniors, well-put-together professionals and street-involved youth, hockey moms and blue-collar dads: remember, you are dust. This is important pastoral work in a death-denying culture.
Remembering your death sweeps out any sentimental, frothy spirituality, bringing a clear-eye to faith. In learning how to die we discover how to live in our present moment, no matter how grim or uncomfortable it may be. Until we learn to die, we remain so full of self, so dominated by fear and distraction, left waiting for more suitable conditions to arrive, for the elusive promise of a return to normal. Meaning we will have failed to live.
You might think this call to be overly morbid and sombre. It sounds that way - remember you are dust; learn how to die. If you’ve never experienced the cross and resurrection, this transgresses the general social contract in which we remain content to avoid and distract ourselves from death.
But as German theologian Karl Barth reminds us, only where there are graves is there also resurrection. On the other side of the cross, remembering our death is the farthest thing from a funeral; on this side of resurrection, that gritty, grey cross you receive on your brow is a promise — that God takes the death-dealing worst we do, the consuming waste and debris of our destruction, and commands out of it life.
The affront of war and death, Lewis concludes, makes us realize that “all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration.” Ashes.
In receiving the smudge of death in our lives — whether by war, plague or ashes — may we find ourselves strangely vivified, alert and ready to respond rightly in life, protecting what is precious and delighting in all that is good and true and holy.
(Artwork by Scott Erickson - you can find his very fine artwork for sale at https://scottericksonartshop.com/collections/everything )