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Ash Wednesday’s Death

Ash Wednesday’s Death February 12, 2019

We pray that He remembers us, even as in dying we may not remember Him.

Just lately emerging from shrinking forests and forced to find habitat on the savannah, our hominid ancestors became human and acquired a sense of self. We awakened one morning, so it seems, and if we could not say who we were, we at least could say we were not like the animals. We knew that we would die and the animals did not.

We possessed an interior consciousness, one brimming with “episodic memories,” permitting self-aware choices, decisions, and mistakes that brought regret. Hovering within and around those choices, there was death and we knew it. The animals are not burdened in that way.

Animal cognition is a touchy subject for some. Many wish to grant the animals rich volitional lives, and emotions mirroring grief. But for the most part these as regarded as “associative memories.” Your dog may be happy to see you (associative) but it can’t remember the last time you went missing (episodic). Animals appear to live in an eternal now, their lives almost certainly determined by what is going on around them in the present moment. Yesterday is today is tomorrow. Their decisions, such as they are, are guiltlessly unencumbered. Ours are not.

Fueled by the acquisition of language—the ability to talk to, with, and for our interior self with words—we communicate subjective thoughts aloud. With language we pass along things learned in the past and project ourselves into an imagined future. We invent symbols and representations; we describe reality around us and make pictures of it. This is a great and creative capacity we were given, but it comes with a price.

Our consciousness extends so far as to tell us we are mortal like the animals. We do not like to think of our own end. A good deal of our mental life is spent avoiding it. Freud—I’ve heard—had the opinion that lurking within each of us is a smug self-assurance that of all humanity around us, we harbor the hope that we alone will escape the fate befalling all others

All things collapse around us and even the far future of the cosmos, it is said, will end in a cold cinder-ridden universe. All things relentlessly change, running down to nothing until nothing is left of us.

Gilbert Meilaender’s Meditations on Christ’s Words from the Cross relates the death of his grandfather and his father as they lay “‘laboring’ just to draw a breath near the end of life.”

That labor also seems to go on and on—and then, suddenly it too is finished. [His father] died in fact, rather as his own father had, whose last words at the age of ninety-one were, “Ich kann nicht mehr.” “I can’t any longer.”

Both of them just wore out, used up; they were finished.

With some luck one may avoid cancer, disease, stroke, or other debilitation and silently slip away from exhaustion, owing to nothing special. A quiet death has been a hope of humanity, I’d guess, for the tens of thousands of years we have been able to think of our self as a self. There are prayers for “quiet rest and peace at the last.” I have rarely found death half so accommodating.

Early in my parish life as a Lutheran pastor I was asked to visit a woman only marginally connected to the parish. I gave her communion awkwardly; a tiny sip of wine mixed with a hint of the host was all of the Body of Christ she could manage. Unable to speak, a stroke having paralyzed her vocal chords, she reached for a pad and in a huge, childish scrawl with wild loops she wrote, “I want to die. God won’t let me. Why?”

A snippet of Hank Williams always comes to mind when I remember her: Once she was fair and once she was young / And some mother rocked her, her darlin’ to sleep…

Her life come now to this, begging death and pestering God. I was disarmed by the question, without ready answer. All the years since have not given me any response that makes any sense to me.

Yet that is the very thing many of us will soon seek: death on Ash Wednesday, our plea that our awareness of death, the entropy encroaching upon us, will become part of God’s awareness of our life. We pray that He remembers us, even as in dying we may not remember Him.

Job is asked:

Can a man be of benefit to God?
Can even a wise man benefit Him?
 (22:2)

We would like to think so but Ash Wednesday coming is our true story, an imposition of ashes: “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Eccl. 3:20)

Still, there is another word—more reliable, I think:

For He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one;
He has not hidden His face from him; but has listened to his cry for help. 
(Ps. 22:24)

Russell E. Saltzman publishes every Tuesday and Thursday usually by noon Central Time. He can be reached on Twitter as @RESaltzman, on Facebook as Russ Saltzman, and by email: russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com. An earlier version of this piece has appeared previously elsewhere.
Photo: ndr.de

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