Paul L. Caron

Sunday, March 6, 2022

NY Times Op-Ed: Ash Wednesday Forces Us To Confront Death, But It Also Offers Hope

New York Times Op-Ed:  Ash Wednesday Forces Us to Confront Death, but It Also Offers Hope, by Tish Harrison Warren (Priest, Anglican Church; Author, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (2021) (Christianity Today's 2022 Book of the Year)):

Warren 3This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which begins the Christian penitential season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, churchgoers usually kneel and our foreheads are marked with ashes in the shape of a cross. An Ash Wednesday service was one of the first liturgical services I ever attended. And it hit me hard. We, the living, gathered to name the fact of death. The priest marked the foreheads of children, even newborn babies. It felt so true and countercultural, and also incredibly sad.

I have since presided over several Ash Wednesday services as a priest, and it still hits me hard. In the service, I tell the members of my congregation, one by one, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This black mark of death rests on every forehead — the young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak, sick and well. We carry on our body a recollection and proclamation that we, and everyone we love, will die. ...

Speaking the truth of mortality out loud on Ash Wednesday feels somehow transgressive. In the midst of the bustle of cities, the busyness of our lives, the triviality that subsumes much of our time and the unreality of social media, a priest stands with ashes in hand and calls people back to reality. ...

Oftentimes, by avoiding the truth of death, we end up stifling questions about the meaning of life, about God, about eternity and about who we are, what we are for, where we are headed and why anything matters at all. ...

There are myriad reasons that wealth might dampen faith. But one is that those of us who are privileged and comparatively comfortable can insulate ourselves from death, suffering and our own mortality in ways others cannot. Whether one is a churchgoer or not, when our bodies are strong, our stomachs are full, and we have high-speed internet and craft beer, questions of eternity seem less pressing.

These Covid years, though, asked us to face the inescapable fragility of all of our lives. Each year, Ash Wednesday asks the same. ...

The Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen called the hope of Christianity — the hope of Ash Wednesday — a “transcendent realism.” Transcendent realism confronts the truth of the grave. And it is in this truth that the most important questions of our lives get a hearing. We need more than diversion, work and pleasure. We need deep, resonant, defiant hope.

Other New York Times op-eds by Tish Harrison Warren:

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