We are forgetful by nature. So today, I have the somewhat unfortunate task of reminding you that one day, you will die.
We have a tendency in our culture to smooth the edges of our experience of death. But this is understandable. We may prefer the term “celebration of life” to funeral. We may say phrases like “she’s in a better place, now” when we don’t know what else to say to a friend in mourning. We read books about plant-based diets called “How Not to Die”. We do what we can, consciously and unconsciously, to downplay the pain of death.
But if you’ve experienced it, you know that death is very real. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you. As songwriter Phil Elverum wrote after his wife died of inoperable pancreatic cancer, “Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not. It’s not for singing about. It’s not for making into art. When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb. When I walk into the room where you were and look into the emptiness instead all fails: my knees fail, my brain fails, words fail.”
Elverum wrote and recorded that album in his bedroom at night, whispering into the microphone so that his sleeping daughter wouldn’t hear him singing about her mother and crying. That’s real death. The words “She’s in a better place now” don’t change that pain of someone being there, and then not. This is what Ash Wednesday is about: remembering our death and leaving space for lamentations.
The scripture that we just heard from Matthew, of Jesus teaching his disciples about the proper way to practice piety, is an interesting one to hear on a day when we publicly express our lamentation by drawing ashes on our foreheads for all the world to see. Some might say that this tradition is exactly what Jesus says we ought not to do – showing off piety. But what I like about this practice is that it is just another reminder of our utter forgetfulness. The ashes, of course, are on our foreheads, where we don’t see them. We may feel a bit smug, having gone to church on a Wednesday. But in just a few minutes, we forget that those ashes are there. Later today you will look into the bathroom mirror and gasp, having forgotten the smudge of the cross on your skin.
Another thing we are likely to forget is our lenten resolutions. Due to the nature of lamentations and fasting that is characteristic of Lent, many people will pick something to give up for the next 40 days to practice the tradition of fasting and self-denial, and to start a healthier habit.
But what Jesus teaches us in this passage in Matthew is that even in doing good things, like creating healthy habits, we sin. To be human is to long for acceptance, but when our drive to do good is in being seen, by God or one another, our motivations are no longer purely out of love, but out of a desire for approval.
The truth is, we can talk about the motivations behind doing good things all day long. We can wonder how we are doing, if we are acting in the purity of charity, or hoping for some sort of pat on the back for our good works. This moral dilemma could go on for the rest of our lives. But as soon as we begin to wonder how pure our motivation for good works may be, we are becoming, once again, self-obsessed. This is the cycle of self-interest, of sin, that we just can’t break.
But one day, our hearts will stop beating. Our lungs will stop filling with air. Our heads will stop racing with thoughts of whether we are good enough, pure enough, generous enough. Today we are reminded again that we are human, fallible and mortal. We are reminded that Someone Else is God – not us. And that Someone knows our weakness and gives us the acceptance and approval we long for, even when we forget.
God, being omniscient, forgets nothing. But he did choose to forget once. In Isaiah, we read that “God remembers our sins no more.” How is this possible, you ask – God being both omniscient and forgetful? As theologian and priest Robert Capon says, “That is the forgetfulness of the dead human mind of Christ. Jesus lay in the tomb – in stone-cold, utter, genuine, human death – from sundown on Friday until sometime before dawn on Sunday.” God forgets our sin through his very own death.
Eventually, our bodies will give up their job of keeping us alive. Our moral dilemmas and self-justifications will be cut short. As it turns out, giving up is the one and only thing we must do for God to do his very unexpected miracle. Eventually, we will all die – but thank God! – there is resurrection for the dead. As St. Paul writes to the Romans, “For if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This is the good news of Ash Wednesday.
For now, we forget our death and we forget our resurrection. They will still happen. Thankfully, God forgets just one thing – our sin – through Jesus’ own death. In a few minutes, ashes will be drawn on your forehead in the shape of a cross. Ashes and a cross. Death and hope. An end and a beginning. A much-needed reminder that we will one day follow Jesus himself into death, and then finally, out of it. Amen.