My denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, posted this picture on their facebook page for Ash Wednesday:
It’s a beautiful image – yet disturbing at the same time. In our culture, talking about death is avoided, confronting death in the face – really avoided, confronting the death of our children – avoided at all costs. Some people might consider the above photo to be in poor taste because it features a child.
Death is ultimate equalizer – no one escapes it. We might be wealthy enough to afford the best medical care, but in the end, no matter how much medical expertise we can buy, we eventually succumb. With medical advances (and again money) we may be able to hold it back, but in the end it’s only delaying the inevitable. We all die. And with the exception of suicide, we have little control over how and when that happens. And death is frightening. It’s frightening because of our lack of control over it, and our lack of concrete physical knowledge of what happens next. If we could be guaranteed heaven, our earthly death would be no big deal. Problem is we don’t have that. I have FAITH there is heaven. I BELIEVE that Jesus has prepared a place for me and all the baptized. But faith and belief are NOT the same as knowledge. Can I prove there is an afterlife? If we could prove heaven’s existence, no one would fear death and everyone would (not believe) but know there is God and live and die accordingly. Alas, we cannot. Resurrection is a matter of faith.
But here is where I find comfort in the above photo, rather than poor taste. Here is where I find joy in the photo, rather than an affront.
The first time I imposed ashes on the forehead of one of my children I paused. Looking them in the face, confronting their mortality, SHOOK me. In that moment I was thinking only of the “here and now,” which, as a parent was completely natural. I quickly had to remind myself of what I believe and rest in that. It’s easier said than done, especially when thinking of our children. I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a child. I pray I never know. I have, however, tasted just a morsel of that pain, when we suspected my middle child might have a degenerative disease that would cut her life very short (thankfully it was ruled out, but the wait for diagnosis was torture).
I can’t say I never doubt. That would be dishonest. But I DO have faith. I have faith that the same cross that was traced on our forehead at baptism, the same cross that is traced on our forehead in ash, is the cross that was there for us 2,000 years ago, the cross of death that leads to life. I have faith that death does NOT have the last word for those who cling to that cross.
The pain of death is real. Even those who have faith grieve, and grieve profoundly. But with our grief we dare to have hope that there is more. And when hope is fleeting, having a community of faith surrounding us, reminding us of the promises and love of God, can carry us through another day.
So I love the photo. I love that it jolts me out of my comfort zone. Out of the comfort zone that tells me I’m the master of my destiny. Out of the comfort zone that tries to have me deny the reality of my mortality. I’m thankful to be jolted out, because out of that comfort zone I find the love of God I don’t deserve, the love of God that holds my children and all those I love more than I EVER could, the love that holds every one of us as we travel through the trials of this life, and into the eternal joy of the life to come.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).