Tombstones, Ashes, and Optimism

Image: Ash WednesdayThis week was a collision of macabre activities and metaphors. Today is Ash Wednesday and I am looking at emails from a small rural Kansas funeral home with sample photos of tombstones with my Grandmother’s name on them.  Some time ago, I had taken on the task of replacing a tombstone in this rural, northeastern Kansas cemetery where she was buried over 50 years ago.

Though I have many fond memories of my Grandma Todd, the photos did not ‘choke me up,’ because it was something I had been pursuing on behalf of my family for some time and it was over fifty years ago when she died. My siblings and I had some comical banter in texts between us as I shared the tombstone options with them in order to get a consensus before ordering it.

But tonight, I will participate in our church’s Ash Wednesday service as one of the pastors up in the front marking the congregants’ foreheads, making the sign of the cross with the ashes on the hundreds of people who come forward.

I reflected on how strange today is – picking out the tombstone and then wiping ashes on people’s heads reminding them, ‘from dust you came and to dust you will return.” What a downer! This is hardly a Norman Vincent Peale moment in my ministry.

Statues of dead people

I have traveled extensively throughout Europe and seen countless churches and cathedrals, most surrounded by graveyards, with tombs in the floor and granite carvings of dead people in the alcoves and smaller altars. While a bit gruesome, this custom wasn’t an expression of a morbid fascination with death, actually it was for the opposite purpose. It was to put the certainty of death in a person’s path on a regular basis so as to remind them to live for God and not fear death.

Our American western approach to death has become ‘celebrations of life,’ which certainly have value, but in one sense, increasingly shield us from the mechanics and sacramental realities of death.

The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews tells the readers, “Only in this way could he (Jesus) set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.” Heb. 2:15, NLT

The Lenten Season on the Christian Calendar invites us walk on a journey to Christ’s passion and ultimately to the cross in order to celebrate the resurrection. Reminiscent of Tony Campolo’s famous sermon, “It’s Friday but Sunday’s Coming,” we face the mortality in order to experience the immortal and hope filled truth of ‘the life of the world to come.’

So whether or not you are able to attend a service tonight and have someone smudge black soot on your forehead, consider walking through the journey of Lent in our sojourn to Good Friday and Easter Sunday!

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