On January 21st my mother, Nancy Rebecca, was laid rest. She was 73 years old. As a priest, I’ve seen my share of bodies at funerals. When my dad, my younger brother, and I – just the three of us – walked into the church to see her, laying pale and still in her coffin, I blurted out, “I’m not ready!” My brother, Andy, put his arm around me and said, “You don’t have to be strong.” I said, “I know.” And I wasn’t.
Seeing a stranger’s body in a coffin is a sad but distant and abstract reminder that we will all die one day, that we all end up in a box of one kind or another eventually. Seeing your mother in one of those boxes, well, the reminder comes close, perhaps too close.
As a momento mori there’s nothing quite as powerful as seeing the woman who gave you life cold and lifeless. There’s nothing quite as intimate as death touching the one you’ve called “mama” for 53 years, and then showing you the results of that touch. I wasn’t ready then, and I’m not ready now.
Ash Wednesday is how the Church reminds us, warns us – again – that eternal life can only come from a worldly death. We are reminded and warned that we are mortal, given to accident, disease, foul play, and just plain old gettin’ old. But this reminder and warning in the form of ashes is not too close. It’s just close enough. Just close enough to Easter that we are strong enough to endure in Christ.
During Lent we celebrate our mortality not by indulging in the world but by distancing ourselves from the things that make us forget eternity. Those ashes tell us that we must die before we can truly live.