This morning I was awakened by gentle rustling outside of my door. It was my son Daniel who was trying to find his long underwear for skiing in the jumble of ski clothes on the floor in the hall. We are on a ski vacation this week and the slopes don't open until 8AM. It was 5:44AM. I was not happy.
Two and a quarter hours later my daughters Sophia and Isabelle, Daniel and I were on the slopes, flying down the mountain - the kids taking every jump possible, I avoiding every jump possible. While Isabelle and Daniel were due in ski class soon, Sophia and I were to ski together through the morning. At the last minute she saw her friend headed to the Children's Learning Center (CLC) for a beginner snowboarding lesson and she begged me to let her do it too. This was my one morning to ski with her alone, but I gave her the choice. Surprise surprise, she chose snowboarding. It's now 8:45AM. It's also Ash Wednesday.
I had given up trying to make a service as I couldn't figure out babysitting and church timing. Suddenly, with all three in classes, I had a window. At 8:50, halfway down a slope, I called the Catholic church nearby and learned there was a service at 9AM. Was it ridiculous to try to make it? Blame it on my liberal guilt complex, but something about dropping off of a ski slope and into such a service also felt a little hypocritical. Yet something else in me nudged me towards the service - why not? Even if I was late, I told myself, I could at least absorb some silence and quiet in a church and reflect on Ash Wednesday's meaning. I dropped Sophia off at the CLC. 9:11AM. As I ran back to my house in full ski regalia - uphill - I couldn't help wondering to myself, "Why I am running back to the house, for the only free moments I will have today, to hop in my car, race into town to a church I have never attended, to have a priest basically say to me while putting ashes on my forehead, "You are going to die someday. Really. You are going to be like the dust someday. Dead."
I couldn't turn around. It was like a magnetic pull. I arrived at 9:21. I had missed only a bit because of a scheduling glitch at the church. Many thought the service was at 9:30, so the priest slowed everything down. Deep breath.
And then, of course, I realize why I am there. As the priest puts the ashes on my forehead, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," I remember putting the ashes of my mother's remains into the earth a little over two years ago. This is real. Death will happen, someday. On that day we stood around a small grave, and not really knowing what to do, my father held out the bag of ashes to my daughter and said, "Isabelle, you go first." I turned to my dad and said, "Dad, how about you go first this time, ok?" Neither I nor Isabelle knew "how" to put the ashes in there - was there some protocol? We had thought through many of the details of her funeral, but none of us had thought about this part. To our surprise, my dad looks at the bag, plunges his bare hand in, takes a handful of my mother's ashes out, and sprinkles them in the grave. We each do the same. What I had thought would be a little gruesome was anything but. It was as close to my mother's physical presence as any of us was ever going to get again. It felt.....right. As we all threw the ashes in the grave, plumes of dust arose and settled on us, our jackets, our umbrellas. Again, It felt right. I never wanted to wash my hand again.
As I approached the priest this morning and those memories surfaced, I wept, and I thought, "Oh my God, it really is all going to end. It ended for my mother, it will end for me, someday, too." We are, each of us, going to die. In traditional Christian language this is reason for great repentance now. Ash Wednesday, and the Lenten season it ushers in, calls us to turn again to God, to loving our neighbor as ourselves, to doing acts of loving-kindness, to working for justice. Many fast today, and some engage in forms of self-denial, both ways of opening space inside to meditate upon all of this. I will do this too, in my own way.
Yet immediately upon the heels of that fear - almost terror - of dying, something else even more powerful welled up. I felt deep, deep thanksgiving for life. It is when you walk right up to your own mortality, or the mortality of those you love, that you know what and for whom you live and love. If you are lucky, you feel the grace of God so deeply that you know that even when it seems like it is all over, it isn't, because we are all resting in the palm of God's hand, now and forever. Yes, there is a need for introspection and repenting - I don't want to minimize that. But my tradition also promises a Love that will hold us all forever, in life and in death.
And then it becomes pretty hard to sweat the small stuff. You realize that when your four year old son wakes you up at 5:44AM trying to put his ski clothes on because he wants to be the first one on the slopes, you should thank your lucky stars. For him, for your family, for life, and, when it ends, please God a long time from now, for that great Love that will carry you there.