Life and Death Sandwich

By Sarah Hershberger

A few weeks ago, pastors everywhere were all asking each other, with a wry smile: “what are you doing on Valentine’s Day?” And every other pastor chuckled and replied: “rubbing dirt on people’s faces and telling them that they’re going to die.” The language of Ash Wednesday probably leaves the house cleaners of the world a little bit frustrated. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Sounds like a bit of a mess if you’re the one in charge of dusting.

But if we dig a little deeper into the ashes and soot, we find that Ash Wednesday is its own kind of fresh start. Every year, we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday. Every year, we take a moment on the Tuesday before to have some sort of little send-off of the things that we enjoy, that we’re going to give up for 40 days. And every year, there is this tradition of having ashes put on our foreheads and being reminded that death comes to all of us.

Being reminded of our own mortality might not seem like a recipe for a fresh start, but…

If we take a moment with these important words, we might see something different.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It’s a reminder that our beginning and our end are the same.

In the fall of last year, an acquaintance of mine from seminary died of cancer. Her road had been long, and through facebook, a large community of friends had been informed that her life was nearing its end. When she died, her husband shared the news in this way, “Natalie came from Love, and this morning, my beloved returned to Love. Blessed be God who is Love.”

I had never heard a life summed up so poetically. She came from love, and returned to love. There is something about this beautiful language that appeals to me on every level. Not only is it a beautiful way to express a person’s life, but I like that the language isn’t all about dust and dirt. I would much prefer to be told each Ash Wednesday that I came from love, and to love I shall return.

But no matter if you talk about death in terms of ashes or in terms of love, Ash Wednesday is its own kind of fresh start. It might best be summed up by that great theologian, Ferris Bueller, when he said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are a call to living with intention, to be mindful, to be fully present. And it is the beginning of a kind of liturgical sandwich.

Just like Epiphany is a light sandwich, with the star of Bethlehem on one end and the Transfiguration at the other end, Lent is a kind of life and death sandwich. At the beginning of Lent, we are reminded of our own mortality. Then just before Easter, we hear again the story of the death of Jesus. And finally on Easter, with great fanfare and acclaim, we remember that Jesus rose from the dead, conquering death for all time.

So, on Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that death comes to all of us. But just 40 days later, we will be reminded that death no longer has the final say.

I think that so often we can slide into making Lent a kind of punishment. Old school understandings of this season seem to constantly drive home our darkness, our sinfulness, even our depravity. It’s a challenging way to spend forty days. Few of us, if any, want to be reminded of the ways in which we have messed up. Because if we’re honest about things, we’ve probably punished ourselves plenty when we think about our failures.

Think of it in this way:

If we were in relationship with someone who constantly told us that we were doing everything wrong, it wouldn’t feel like a loving relationship, would it. It would feel like we were being talked down to. It would likely feel perpetually frustrating.

But if we were in a relationship with someone who constantly told us, “I get it. That has happened to me, too. You’re broken and messy? I’m broken and messy, too. I’m so glad we’ve got each other.”

That sounds like a better relationship, doesn’t it? It sounds like kinship. It sounds like belonging to each other. It sounds a lot more like the love of God that was shown to us in the life of Jesus.

Poet Alberto Rios wrote about it this way:

If someone in your family tree was trouble,
A hundred were not:

The bad do not win–not finally,
No matter how loud they are.

 We simply would not be here
If that were so.

You are made, fundamentally, from the good.
With this knowledge, you never march alone.

You are the breaking news of the century.
You are the good who has come forward

Through it all, even if so many days
Feel otherwise.

(From “A house called Tomorrow.)

While tradition tells us that we should hear the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I’d like to offer this alternative: Remember that you came from love, and to love you shall return.”

This is the journey to the cross. To see God’s love for us, in the person of Jesus. It is not for punishment or guilt or blame. It is to become closer to God, by studying the road to the cross. Maybe that means a different way of doing things for these forty days, to dig into the messy, brokenness of life. Maybe it means quiet contemplation, or maybe it means exuberant, joyful celebration. But if we are able to increase our ability to see others through God’s loving eyes, then we have had a successful Lenten discipline.

It’s not about punishment. It’s about learning from God’s love.

It’s not about death. It’s about life.

It’s not about the darkness of humanity. It’s about the light of God’s love.

When we are reflections of it, the world will be changed by the knowledge that we are loved by as loving God. Isn’t that good news?