Recently I have found myself thinking a lot about a good friend of mine who died several years ago. Allen received a terminal diagnosis while he was in his late forties. Over the next couple of weeks, he wrote a series of poems about what he was going through, and he shared them with me. They were not easy reading. One poem began, “It is strange to be a dead man.”
That line has stuck with me ever since. As best I could tell, what my friend meant was that it was strange knowing what was going to kill him, and more or less when it would happen.
I didn’t then, and I don’t now, know what will kill me or when it will happen. But it occurred to me, reading Allen’s poems, that, in a way, I was not so different from him.
He knew precisely what would kill him. I have no idea what will get me in the end, but I know that my body will fail somehow. He knew he would die in a few years. I hope for more time than that, but I’ll die in, at most, a few decades. In the grand scheme of things, a few decades is not so long.
What was different about me and my friend was not our mortality. We shared that. What was different is that he had to face his death in a way that I mostly don’t.
Except for today, Ash Wednesday. Today I have marked people with ashes, and reminded them that someday they will return to dust, they will die. In a few minutes, I’ll receive the same mark, and I’ll hear the same grim reminder. I’ll invite you to do the same.
Everyone responds to Ash Wednesday in their own way. Some people avoid it like the plague or endure it with discomfort, and I get that. Others love it, which is more puzzling. I am one of those people who love it, and I’ve never been quite sure why.
But I got some help from an unlikely source, an article in the newspaper titled, “What is Death?” by a hospice physician named B.J. Miller.
Dr. Miller began by describing physical death, death for our bodies, from a medical perspective. That matters. Certainly it matters for a doctor.
But based on his experiences with hospice patients, Miller insisted that a purely physical understanding of death was inadequate. Death, he said, has to do just as much with our spirit, as becomes apparent in end-of-life conversations.
Dr. Miller would ask his patients, “at what point, would you consider your life to be over?” Virtually no one answered, “when I have no more brain function.” Instead, people talked about what was important in their lives, the things they couldn’t bear to lose.
According to the article, one man said his life would be over when he couldn’t watch a Red Sox game. Now, I’m a baseball fan. And, as you may remember, I may have mentioned it once or twice, my team won the World Series this year. But that man was surely talking about more than baseball. The man surely meant that his life would be over when he lost the capacity to engage with the world, to enjoy the world around him.
What Miller realized, talking to his hospice patients, is that thinking about death is also a way of thinking about what makes life meaningful. We all need to ask ourselves questions like: What is it I hold dear? Who am I, or who do I want to be? Those questions are important anytime. But the prospect of death gives them an extra kick. It makes us focus in a way we might not otherwise do.
Miller’s article was in a secular newspaper. But the questions he raises are Lent questions. They are Ash Wednesday questions.
In just a minute, we will hear the Church’s invitation to the observance of a holy Lent. The first specific thing we will be invited to do is to engage in self-examination and repentance.
Self-examination means asking ourselves, who am I? Who am I, when I am being brutally honest with myself? And when the answer to that question is not who I want to be, we repent of our failure to be the people we could be, the people we hope to become, the people God is helping us to become.
We prepare to ask ourselves those Lent questions at this service, by being reminded that we are dust, and that we will return to dust someday.
Now, that all sounds pretty grim. But there is hope here, too. Hope and even beauty.
We will die someday. But we are alive right now. God has given us life and the opportunity to live well, to embrace the things that really matter, to experience and to share the joy of being God’s beloved children.
Here’s how Miller put it. “Death is the force that shows you what you love and urges you to revel in that love while the clock ticks.” Wat a great line. “Death is the force that shows you what you love and urges you to revel in that love while the clock ticks.”
As Christian people, we can take this a step farther, too. God invites us to live in love, love of God and love of neighbor. And God promises us that that love is eternal. Love doesn’t die. As we will hear on Easter morning, love is stronger than death, and to God’s love we are returning.
I think one last time about my friend who received a terminal diagnosis and had to face the reality of living as a dead man. A few years after his diagnosis, he told me that he had never felt the presence of God, the love of God, surrounding and upholding him, as powerfully as he had done since learning that he was going to die.
Allen lived what Christ teaches. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Take up their cross daily. That is the Lent challenge.
And when we take the Lent challenge seriously, when we accept the fact of our mortality, when we take up our crosses each day, when we ask the Lent questions and really try to answer them, we live.
Facing his own death, Allen was more fully alive than ever before. And when he died, after a long struggle, Allen entered eternal life in the loving presence of God. That is our invitation and our hope, too.
The question for us, this day and this season, is what that invitation and hope means for our lives right now, and over the next several weeks. What is God calling us to let go? What is God calling us to take on? What would a more loving me look like, and live like? And what small steps can we take to move in the right direction?
Answering those questions, the Lent questions, takes time, and it takes prayer.
My prayer for us now, as we begin our Lenten journey, is that we can embrace God’s invitation to observe a holy Lent with hope and with joy, that we can use the time we have been given wisely, and that we can live now and always in God’s love. In Christ’s name. Amen.
 New York Times, December 20, 2020.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan