“Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.” ~Book of Common Prayer
Today, on Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are mortal. We remember that the pictures we see around us on billboards and television screens are lies—those beautiful bodies will grow old and wrinkled, those witty minds will become feeble and weary, that boundless energy and thirst for life will wear into dull acquiescence. We so often allow ourselves to forget that we will one day die, and that all our thoughtless dreams will one day be over. We allow ourselves to live like butterflies, flitting from flower to flower in the vain pursuit of a fleeting beauty that will be killed with the first frost. We become arrogantly blind when we believe we are immortal. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
But as we remember inevitable death, we also remember that all this is merely “what if.” If Christ had not been born—if he had not died—if he had not given us life with his rising—there would be no escape from the slow dissolution of time. All that would be left for us would be a stoic recognition of our mortality and a grim determination to live our lives rightly. But Christ did die, and he did live again, and he did grant us life in him. Death is not the end, the clang of the last door forever shut—there has been the ring of trumpets, and the gates have been flung open, and the prisoners have stumbled out into the sunlight. On Ash Wednesday, we are left not with the foolish confidence of those who only think of this life, nor with the dour necessity of final death. We are reminded of victory over death—a real victory, over a terrible enemy—and a joyous life to come.Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee, much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well, And better then thy stroke; why swell’st thou then; One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. ~John Donne