Ash Wednesday: Meditations on Beauty and Mortality For Aging Children in a Time of Pandemic
Bruce G. Epperly
For two years, I have been interviewed retired pastors for my book on adventures in clergy retirement, “The Jubilee Years: Embracing Clergy Retirement.” Although I am now in the Medicare Generation, I often describe myself as being in midlife, provided I live to be 136! (now closer to 137!) Last fall, prior to the emergence of the pandemic, I planned to attend my 50th high school reunion. Now we are considering a reunion in 2022 when we will all be 70! I’m looking forward to it, but, oh my, we boomers from the class of 1970 have changed quite a bit over the past 50 years! Baby boomers are discovering their mortality. For a while, we lived in the garden, never expecting to grow old, hoping that the “better living through chemistry” that inspired spiritual adventures in the 60’s and 70’s will continue with medications and joint replacements as our fountain of youth now that we are in our 60’s and 70’s. Though we intellectually knew about our mortality, the pandemic has placed mortality front and center as we put on our masks when we leave our hands, find ourselves exiled from our grandchildren, and worry that a cough could lead to a mortal illness! Life becomes even more sobering when we see from our age group dying of COVID! We are, as Joni Mitchell sings, “aging children,” and we need songs of hope to help us navigate the pathways of mortality.
Over the past few years, several of my friends have been diagnosed with life-threatening cancers. One of my closest friends, with whom I had journeyed and grown for nearly fifty years, recently died brain cancer. My best friend died six years ago from breast cancer. In my mind, their lives were cut short. I take note of obituaries and measure my days against the lifespans of celebrity pastors and well-known theologians. Funerals and memorial services characterize my work as pastor of South Congregational Church (UCC) in Centerville, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Recent funerals requiring limitations in crowd size and safe distancing, and the requirement of being outdoors further punctuate the reality of mortality. As a pastor, relative, and friend, I don’t need anyone to remind me of the fragility and uncertainty of life.
Traditional Ash Wednesday liturgies focus on the brevity of life and remind worshippers that they came from dust and will soon enough will return to the earth, dust once more. For our parents in the faith, Lent was a morose and somber season in which they gave up something in to prepare themselves for eternal life. The salvation promised and hoped for required turning our backs on the joys of embodiment and the beauties of the earth. Faithful Christians trained their eyes on heaven, forsaking time for eternity and embodiment for legalism and asceticism. Yes, life is serious and risky business, and no one gets out alive. But, is salvation just an escape from this world of perpetual perishing or is it seeing everlasting beauty in each passing moment? Can we be “ citizens of heaven” while we are joyfully living here on earth?
Life is fragile, and we hope for spiritual wholeness, and perhaps, everlasting life evolving in companionship with God and our loved ones. For years, I struggled with Ash Wednesday Services precisely because of their otherworldliness and asceticism. My self-denial in Lent was typically half-hearted and short-lived going the way of New Year’s resolutions.
Once I asked a Maryland farmer why he pruned his apple trees. His response was, “to let the light in.” During Lent, we prune and simplify our lives so God’s light can come in. Connected as branches on a divine vine, we prune the cumber so that God’s energy can flow unimpeded into our lives, bringing forth abundant fruit. These days, I am reconsidering the meaning of Ash Wednesday. The brevity and uncertainty of life now invites me to praise, wonder, and beauty, and to seize the moment. Each day I affirm “this is the day God has made and I will rejoice in it!” All that I love and care for is mortal and transitory, but mortality is the inspiration to celebration and love. Plato once described time as the moving image of eternity. We are constantly dying, but we are also constantly living as we reflect God’s vision in the world of the flesh. This day, this moment, is a “thin place” for God is with us, revealed in flesh, blood, and healing touch.
This Ash Wednesday, my aim is to let go of everything that keeps me from rejoicing in the passing beauty of the earth. Each year, as summer begins, I train my eyes for the first fireflies. Their season is brief, and given humanity’s destruction of the natural world, I fear that each summer will be the last. But, when I see the first firefly in late May, my heart leaps with joy and all summer long, I rejoice in the fragile flashing beauty they display.
Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing forth from a multi-billion-year holy adventure. But dust is good, after all; it is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil, and perhaps we are also “star-dust,” emerging from God’s intergalactic creativity. We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.
How can we not rejoice in the color purple or pause in wonder at a baby’s birth? How can we be oblivious to the “dearest freshness deep down things?” as Gerard Manley Hopkins notes? Like Jacob, Ash Wednesday causes us to pause, notice, wake up, and discover that “God is in this place” and now we know it! With author Patricia Adams Farmer, Ash Wednesday invites us to take a “beauty break,” open to the awe-filled, precarious world in which we live.
So, this Ash Wednesday, I plan on considering the lilies and the birds the air. I will enjoy the beauty of the windswept beach on my morning walk. I will play with my grandsons and love my wife Kate deeply.
Wednesday, at our congregation’s two Zoom Ash Wednesday Services, we won’t have the imposition of ashes. But we can still reflect on the meaning of ashes for us today, not the ashes of world-denial or bodily-mortification, but the ashes of transformation, of awakening to beauty and love, of seizing the moment.
In some liturgies, the imposition of ashes is accompanied by the words, “repent and believe the gospel.” And, that I plan to say these words even if I don’t place ashes on congregants’ foreheads. I plan to repent and believe – to “repent,” turn around, live more in moment, appreciating God’s grandeur, and believing the good news – the embodied, yet ever-lasting, gospel of beauty, wonder, and grace – the good news of walking with beauty all around me. For this is the day that God has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and writer. He is the author of over 60 books including, WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR GRANDPARENTS WORKING FOR A BETTER WORLD; LOVE IN A TIME OF CRISIS AND PANDEMIC (volume 3 of his pandemic trilogy); and THE JUBILEE YEARS: EMBRACING CLERGY RETIREMENT.