Too much death. I’ve attended too many funerals as of late. While I’ve attended some services in person, I’m also grateful for the gift of technology that allows me to grieve with friends and colleagues, to remember those who have passed via live streaming. And so grief has found its way into my living room, and as I sit in the grieving chair in the days after, I remember. I remember the stories of a life well-lived and the singing. Even through the mediated sound of my less than adequate computer speaker I can sense the power in the singing “from life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no human plan, can ever pluck me from his hand: till he returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand”. Songs of faith and defiance in the face of death, “blessed assurance, Jesus is mine” even in the darkness.
The same gift of modern technology brings me images of mass burials, broken bodies, and grieving loved ones from Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Ukraine, Sudan, Latin America, Chicago…too much death. Once in a while I try to imagine what it must be like to experience so much death—my heart starts to break, and I stop because it is too much. I can’t breathe. And I wonder how it is that in the face of so much death people continue on, continue living, continue rebuilding broken lives, broken communities, broken beauty. Yet they do so with resilience, though death continues; they do so in defiance of all that is wrong with the world—they find a spark of hope, and fan it until it burns bright again. They live and celebrate births, weddings, and the beauty of the flower that grows out of the rubble.
On Ash Wednesday we acknowledge our humanity and the death that shadows life. The ashes of mourning are placed on our foreheads as we enter the Lenten season, these 40 days of fasting. In these ashes we recognize the fragility of our own lives, that each breath is a gift, and that God is the giver of such gifts. On Ash Wednesday instead of looking at the dark that surrounds us from the comfort of a lit room, we sit in darkness and see the light.
The cross of ashes, traced upon the forehead of each Christian,
is not only a reminder of death but inevitably (though tacitly)
a pledge of resurrection.
–Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration