Monday, February 25, 2013

On Ashes, Mortality, and a Cheshire Moon

I have been meaning to post a little bit about Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday was twelve days ago, but my mind and my heart have been contemplating that day ever since, and I think it might be helpful for me to process a bit here. 

I always look forward to the Ash Wednesday service.  The melancholy in me loves its darkness, its quietness, its solemnity.  Without fail, however, I always forget how difficult the service is for me.  This year, I didn't remember until we were walking into church.  I suddenly stopped walking and said to Matt, "Oh.  I forgot how much I hate this service."  Matt replied, "I know.  I hate it, too."  (And then we rounded the corner and saw our pastor, who I don't think heard this conversational exchange.) 

I hate Ash Wednesday because the service reminds me that I am but dust.  I will admit to you that I am terrified of death.  Terrified.  I don't tell many people this (and why I am blurting out my fear here, today, is something I don't know that I quite understand), but every year or two or three, around this season, I go through a period of time where I become convinced that I am dying. 

I get a cough that won't go away.
Or I experience heart palpitations that keep me awake at night. 
Or I start feeling weird and am sure it is a mysterious, deadly illness. 
Or fill in the blank.

It's OCD on steroids.  Quite literally.  I hate it. 

Ash Wednesday doesn't help.

I always think that I love the ritual of receiving the ashes, until I walk forward and hear the pastor say, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return," as he forms the cross on my forehead with his thumb. 

I hate that. 

I don't want to be reminded of my mortality.  I live in fear of that very thing every day. 

So this year, I sat in the pew feeling a little anxious, a little apprehensive. 

But this year, as I received the ashes, instead of being reminded of my mortality, I heard the words, "Repent, and believe the Gospel."

I do have many things from which I should repent, this is true, and I will not use my blog as my confessor. 
But more meaningful to me at that moment was the admonishment to believe the Gospel, the Good News. 

I needed that reminder.  I needed the reminder, the good news, that yes, I am made of dust, but I am being redeemed, I have been redeemed, and God can make something beautiful out of this imperfectly put together mess of dust. 

This year, I didn't leave the Ash Wednesday service with the icy tentacles of fear gripping my heart. 
I left with a bit of hope. 

And as we drove home, my son looked out the window and exclaimed, "Look!  The moon is smiling at me!" 
And so it was. 

The moon was smiling at him. 
And it was smiling at me, too.
Repent, and believe the Gospel.
Repent, and believe the Good News.


  1. This post made me think of something I read recently in _The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything_: "The maxim of 'illusory religion' is as follows: 'Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.' 'Real religion,' says [John] Macmurray, has a different maxim: 'Fear not; the things you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.'"

  2. This is such a great thought, Joanna. I think that I have used religion sometimes in a very superstitious way--almost "magical thinking," really. It's a tangled web of thinking that has fed my obsessives fears rather than alleviating them. I am going to copy this quote into my journal. Thank you!