Ash Wednesday: Confrontation with Mortality

ANDREW RAINES

BY WILL WILLIMON

Editor’s note: Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western calendar. On this day, Christians put ashes on their (fore)heads to symbolize sorrow for their sin and to remind themselves that they will die, eventually turning to dust.

“The truth about life is that we shall die,” said writer Philip Roth, just before he died. Death is as out of control as life can get. In my years of pastoral work, I have served as psychopompos helping some five hundred souls to the grave, privileged to say a few words on God’s behalf at their end. And one approaching day my remains shall be deposited with Patsy’s in the crypt of Duke Chapel, under, rather than in, the pulpit.

Augustine said, in a sermon, that just as a doctor looks at a sick man in his deathbed, shakes his head and says, “He won’t get out of this alive,” one could look into our crib and say, “He won’t get over this.” As T. S. Eliot wrote in “East Coker,” in Four Quartets:

“In my beginning is my end. . . . Houses rise and fall, crumble, . . .

Are removed, destroyed . . . in their place . . . a factory, or a by-pass.”

We should love the church, said Eliot, as the only institution with the backbone to tell us of “sin and death and other unpleasant facts of life.”

Forced by my vocation to do so much undertaking, mortality has been a close companion. First Dante and then Eliot were surprised that “death had undone so many.” I’m not. On more than one night I’ve dreamed about the people I’ve buried—the babe whose first breath was her last, the teenager who decapitated himself in the rec room with his shotgun (and whose mother insisted that only I could perform post-mortem cleanup, which was an appropriate way for me to prepare for my Good Friday sermon that very evening). Then there was the bank president who ebbed away clutching my hand, gasping, “How do I know? Tell me!” I helped each get on the bus that takes them for free to Hamlet’s “undiscovered land” from which “no traveler returns.”

Should I be ashamed of my perverse glee, at Ash Wednesday services in Duke Chapel, to stand before a well-built nineteen-year-old Duke male—with bulging biceps and everything working—smearing a cross of ash upon his forehead? Pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. [1] Quite a rush to preach finitude to those who believe that maybe—with regular workouts and avoidance of fructose—they are immortal. 

“Of course Christianity is life,” says Kierkegaard. “But first it passes through death.” 

Say what you will about the limits of the Christian faith.  At least it manages to tell folks the truth about the limits of our lives, particularly as we smear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

Thanks be to God.

Adapted from Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Will Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity and was Dean of Duke Chapel for twenty years. 

This piece is a part of a syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. Read more at: https://www.yalelogos.com/lent-2021


 [1] Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.

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