by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
The Christian/Catholic drama of Ash Wednesday is amazing when one thinks of it. It is countercultural for people in the so-called “developed world”, the world of privilege. With the imposition of blessed ashes come the words just quoted and we are faced squarely with the inevitability of our own death. This act is remarkable in this culture and enormously grace-filled.
Two days before Ash Wednesday The New York Times lead editorial, uncharacteristically, spoke about the subject of death. Written by an Anglican clergy person, it made several of the observations that are here in the first paragraph but in much greater detail and clarity. She observed that this whole matter of “speaking truth of mortality out loud on Ash Wednesday feels transgressive”. That is self-evident. We are a people who, perhaps unconsciously, avoid facing the reality of our certain death, covering it with near frenetic activity. Busyness is our idol and to slow down and stop for any significant period is considered a total waste of time. And as our modern thinking goes, “Time is money.”
The Times essay goes on to make an important Lenten point that our relatively comfortable lives can insulate us from larger questions – our self-satisfaction and self-reliance make them less pressing. The writer says: “the pleasures of consumerism and creature comforts dull [our] notice of life, longing, meaning and the pressing struggles of this world – and death.” Avoiding the truth of death, we end up stifling questions such as why are we here and where are we going; in a word, stifling the deepest and crucial questions of human existence.
Pope Francis has some words to say about this phenomenon in Laudato Si. Characteristically he does not condemn it but offers an alternative to it. In a section of the encyclical titled, “A Celebration of Rest”, the Holy Father says: “Christian spirituality incorporates the value of relaxation… Rest opens our eyes to the larger picture…” In this we can clearly infer the Pope to include the larger picture of our impermanence, mortality, our inevitable death.
So we circle back to “Remember that you are dust…” It has to be said that every one of us has fears regarding death [except perhaps those people whose soulmates have passed on and life no longer has meaning without him or her]. For most of us this fear has a certain logic: we don’t know what dying is like, or what lies ahead after death, or what might be the divine judgement on our lives.
On the other hand, our Christian/Catholic spirituality gives us an anchor here. Living through the experience of saying good-bye to a loved one through our Catholic ritual is an enormously consoling and hope-filled event and one which should counteract, if not take away, fears about our own impending death. All the rites of a Catholic funeral point to the belief that death does not have the final word about human life, that it is not the last chapter for God’s people. Hope in life eternal based on the belief in Christ’s resurrection informs our ritual good-byes to the deceased.
Beginning then with Ash Wednesday, one of our Lenten tasks is to allow the sureness of our dying to enter fully into our consciousness. The task also is to turn toward other kinds of death across the world – in places like Yemen, Syria, Gaza, among refugees drowning in seas off the borders of Europe – the list is seemingly never-ending.
Above all, as Lent 2022 begins, our attention to death and dying goes to Ukraine and the diabolical attack on those innocent people by Putin’s Russia. Those deaths are premature, ugly, monstrous. They surely bear no resemblance to the uplifting reflections in these lines about normal and blessed processes of dying peacefully in the Lord.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.