At the heart of Ash Wednesday is the bleak ritual of the ashes. I smear ash on people’s heads in the shape of a cross, and I say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” People do the same to me.
I have been smearing ashes on people all day. I started at 7:30 on the streets of Springfield. I smeared ashes on people at Saint Andrew’s at lunchtime. I smeared ashes on college students at Baypath College this afternoon. I am about to smear ashes on many of you, and I am hoping one of you will ash me for what will be my third time today. Everywhere I have been, people have welcomed the ashes.
What is the appeal of such a grim reminder of our mortality?
Recently I finished a really wonderful book called Being Mortal by a man named Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon who has spent a lot of time reflecting on end of life issues in the United States today. Gawande says that dying people often want to talk about their impending death.
Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time talking about death. We prefer to pretend that everything will be OK, that the person will get better, even when we know better. Many of us do not know how to talk to a dying person about death. But that is what dying people want and need to do.
What Gawande says about people who are close to death is, I think, true for all of us some of the time. All of us will die. All of us know that. And sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—all of us want to be honest about it.
But we do not get many opportunities to talk honestly about death. A nearly continuous stream of entertainment and work distracts us from the painful inevitability of death. All around us, advertisements imply that if we just buy the right products, we will be young and beautiful forever. We do not ever need to die.
It is a soothing fiction, so we tend to play along. But it is fiction, and in our hearts we know that it is fiction. And in our hearts, we long for something more than a soothing fiction.
In our hearts, we long for some way to acknowledge what we all know to be true, that we will die someday. We long for the chance to talk about the fact of our death so that we can process the awful truth. We long for honesty about our lives and about our deaths.
I read in the newspaper just yesterday about something called Death Cafes. Death Cafes are just what they sound like: an opportunity for people to come together over tea and pastries and talk about death. Death Cafes started a couple of years ago and are becoming increasingly popular.
A host at one of the local death cafés was quoted as saying that “we live in a death-phobic culture,” a culture that does not provide us with opportunities to talk about death in a healthy way. Talking about death seems so depressing.
But it may be just the opposite. It may be what is depressing is not talking about death. The host of the Death Cafés says that “people are relieved to have a place to talk about death.”
That makes sense. There is something strangely comforting about actually saying what we all know to be true, but what we all fear to say. Once we have said it out loud, the fear of death, the reality of death, becomes a little more manageable.
And yet, we mostly do not do it. We mostly do not talk about death even when it is the elephant in the room and even when we really need to talk about it.
Except for today. Ash Wednesday is like our Death Café.
On Ash Wednesday, we are honest about death. On Ash Wednesday, we receive the ashes, and we hear the terrible words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
That is what makes the Ash Wednesday service so awful, and so wonderful, and so very important. Ash Wednesday is a rare chance to be open and honest about the fact that we will all die. In a few minutes, I will invite you all to come forward to experience that moment of brutal honesty.
But particularly on a day when we acknowledge the inevitability of death, we need to remember that there is more to be said. Our Christian Death Café is ultimately not about death at all. Our Death Café is ultimately about life and hope and love.
As human beings, we know that we will die. But as Christians, we know that death does not get the last word. As Christians, we know that God has the last word, and that God’s last word is resurrection and life.
I love the bracing honesty of Ash Wednesday. But I love even more the good news of resurrection.
Our Bishop has started a wonderful tradition that complements the terrible honesty of Ash Wednesday. Today we receive ashes and hear the words about returning to dust. But on another day, we will be anointed with holy oil. And on that day, we will hear the deeper truth, the complementary truth: “Remember that love is stronger than death, and to God’s love you are returning.”
Honesty about death and faith in resurrection go together. Indeed it is our faith in resurrection that makes it possible for us to face death with hope and not despair.
That is why, after the imposition of ashes, we will celebrate the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s victory over death. Even on this day, when our service begins by acknowledging death, we end by affirming our faith in eternal life. We may begin with repentance and mourning, but we end, even on this day, with forgiveness and joy.
Even today, even on Ash Wednesday, even at our Death Café, God’s triumph, God’s love, has the last word.
And so, on this Ash Wednesday, let us come forward without fear to hear the terrible words of our mortality, knowing also the good news of God’s victory and our eternal life.
Thanks be to God, in the name of Jesus Christ our savior. Amen.
 Pete Redington, “The Death Café,” The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Feb 17, 2015.
 Pete Redington, “The Death Café,” The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Feb 17, 2015