Ash Wednesday: Dr. Duane W.H. Arnold PhD
“…You might be an old man with his whole life at his back
And you can hear eternity whispering down the track”
I think a good deal about death these days. All the men in my family die in their 60s. I turned 63 my last birthday. The women in my family do better. My mother is 90, independent and still driving. My grandmother famously said, “Any fool can make it to a 100 years old”. She died the morning of her 101st birthday. So, between the women and the men in my family, it seems to be a roll of the dice for me, with the dice weighted on one side.
That, however, is not the reason that I’m reflecting on death of late. You see, when I was younger, I was very ambitious. Owing to that ambition, I tended to have friends and mentors from one, or sometimes, two generations ahead of me. In staff positions, I always tended to be the youngest. So, now I find myself attending funerals and buying sympathy cards on a regular basis. I know that if my phone rings after 9.0 in the evening, it’s not likely to be good news.
This sort of thing has happened to me before, but in very different circumstances. On staff at a church in NYC in the early 1990s, part of my job was pastoral visitation at a renowned research hospital in the city. It was the height of the AIDS crisis. The seventh and eighth floors of the facility were filled with AIDS patients. The drug cocktail that mitigated the symptoms of the disease was still on the horizon. To have contracted full-blown AIDS was essentially a death sentence. Sometimes it seemed that each pastoral visit had the same script. I’d walk into the room and find a patient in bed. He was usually in his 20s, but looked two or three times his age. He was from Kansas, or Illinois, or Nebraska. Often, his mother would be there, seated at the side of the bed. When he first became ill, he told his mother it was some sort of “blood cancer”. It was only when she flew to New York and talked to the doctors that she learned the truth. If she was fortunate, her son could still communicate with her. Often, he could not, as the secondary symptoms of the disease had attacked motor skills, speech and sight. I learned that there was such a thing as what the Roman Catholics called a “good death”… and I learned to pray that God, in his mercy, would grant it to the young men in the hospital beds. In one year, I attended or participated in over 200 funerals and memorial services.
When I left NYC for the UK, I thought that I had left all this behind, but one evening the phone rang. It was my friend, Martin, calling from New York. Martin, originally from Switzerland, had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion years before. He had only been diagnosed when getting a blood test for his marriage license. The disease had been dormant for years, but he was calling to tell me that it had changed. They gave him three to six months to live. My wife and I decided to fly him to the UK and have him spend a month with us so we could take care of him. We also decided, as much as he was able, to have him participate in college life with us. It was an astounding month. We filled the days with laughter and taking him to see the sights. In the evenings we had Martin with us for dinner on high table in the college hall and drinks in the senior common room. He attended Evensong in the Cathedral almost every day. By the end of the month, Martin had become noticeably weaker. When we took him to the rail station to get to Heathrow, he turned to us as he was leaving and quoted C.S. Lewis, “No good-byes for Christians”. Three weeks later, we received the news that he had died.
In my tradition, we begin the observation of Lent with Ash Wednesday. The palm leaves that had been used at the last Palm Sunday had been placed behind a cross where slowly they have turned from green to brown as they dried. The leaves are then burned to produce ashes. They have gone from triumph to death and finally to ash. At the end of the Ash Wednesday service, we will go forward to the pastor. He will place his thumb in the ashes and use them to mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross. As he applies the ashes he will say, “Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
We’re all going to die. Or, as a friend of mine likes to say, “No one gets out of here alive…”
Sometimes, I think we need to be reminded that death is inevitable and that life is transient. For some, Ash Wednesday is a yearly reminder and Lent, the forty days before Easter, allows us time for reflection. Perhaps we need this time, year by year to consider our own mortality. When we are younger, it is always the “other person” who is going to die, not us. As we get older, the question becomes, “who next”? Then, finally, it’s our turn.
I’d like to be able to tell you exactly what happens when we die, but I can’t. All I know for certain is the assurance that to be “absent from the body” is to “be present with the Lord”. I’m reasonably assured that there will be a last judgement, but apart from that I find myself unwilling to speculate about “the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell”. I trust that we may be transformed, that our bodies may become like Christ’s glorious body, but how that happens, or what exactly that body will be, I really cannot say. In the end, all we may know for certain is that we will be with Christ and, we assume, with those who have gone before us in the faith; that God will subject all things to himself, that “God may be all in all” and that the last enemy to be destroyed will be death itself.
To be with Christ, to be with the Church, to receive Christ’s own glorious body, to be lost in wonder, love and praise – that is what awaits us. It is also, however, the reality that I believe Christ wishes us to live out in the here and now. Or, put in more evangelical language, eternal life doesn’t start when you die, it starts when you come to know Christ. If we truly believe that, however, it may mean resetting some of our priorities and a season such as Lent provides an opportune time. This Lent we might recognize that those issues that divide us are of little consequence in the light of eternity. This Lent it might compel us to realize that the politics of the moment, whether left or right, while of seeming importance, pale into insignificance.
This Lent, we might realize that what is important is to love Christ and to love one another… and, this Lent, we don’t have to wait until we die.