Ash Wednesday reminds mortals how short life truly is

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 9, 2011

An ancient Hebrew poet said it so simply: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die . . . .”

In our day, the Dalai Lama affirmed this wisdom when he said: “Death is a part of all our lives. Whether we like it or not, it is bound to happen.” To which he added: “Instead of avoiding thinking about it, it is better to understand its meaning.”

One way many Christians around the world have embraced the meaning of our human mortality is through the celebration of Ash Wednesday, observed this year on March 9.

Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days (excluding Sundays) that lead up to Easter. The date is moveable, depending on the date of Easter in each year.

Traditionally, Anglicans, Catholics, and Lutherans – and more recently, members of a growing list of other churches – gather on this annual day of reflection to receive the sign of the cross smudged on their foreheads with ashes, a reminder that they are dust and to dust they shall return.

The ritual of ashes calls those so marked to the humble recognition that they are not the eternal Creator but transitory creatures, not unlike flowers that flourish for a while and then are gone.

In the words of Psalm 90 in the Hebrew Bible, human lifespan may be “threescore years and ten” or even “fourscore years.” In view of that brevity, the psalmist prays: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

But just what kind of lifestyle does this ashes-wisdom point to? Certainly not the self-serving shrewdness, narcissism, greed and bullying underlying the saying found on bumper stickers and T-shirts back in the 1980s: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Nor does Christianity have a monopoly on its lifestyle. Although Ash Wednesday by name is unique to Christianity, the spirit of Ash Wednesday permeates many traditions.

Indeed, as already noted, its roots lie deep within Christianity’s elder brother, Judaism, where its moral implications are seen in such passages as Psalm 51:10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”

Such interior reorientation of one’s life values and practices, as symbolized by the ritual ashes, is consistent with the teachings of Buddhism:

“Normally we do not like to think about death. We would rather think about life,” says Sogyel Rinpoche, popular spiritual director and author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. “Why reflect on death? When you start preparing for death you soon realize that you must look into your life now . . . and come to face the truth of your self. Death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected.”

And that true meaning has a lot to do with love and compassion.

The other night Cochrane coffee companions Michael and Judie Bopp brought to my attention one of their favourite descriptions of this kind of lifestyle from the Baha’i writings of ’Abdu’l-Bahá:

“Soon will your swiftly-passing days be over, and the fame and riches, the comforts, the joys provided by this rubbish-heap, the world, will be gone without a trace. Summon ye, then, the people of God, and invite humanity to follow the example of the Company on high.

“Be ye loving fathers to the orphan, and a refuge to the helpless, and a treasury for the poor, and a cure for the ailing. Be ye the helpers of every victim of oppression, the patrons of the disadvantaged. Think ye at all times of rendering some service to every member of the human race. Pay ye no heed to aversion and rejection, to disdain, hostility, injustice: act ye in the opposite way. Be ye sincerely kind, not in appearance only. Let each one of God’s loved ones centre his attention on this: to be the Lord’s mercy to man; to be the Lord’s grace. Let him do some good to every person whose path he crosseth, and be of some benefit to him. Let him improve the character of each and all, and reorient the minds of men.”

Along the same line, another of my Cochrane coffee companions, Ann Manning, one of the musicians at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, treasures the words from Tom Conry’s popular Lenten prayer hymn, “Ashes”:

We rise again from ashes, from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes, then must our lives be true,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

All of this is succinctly captured in an old Stoney Nakoda proverb: Nîbi ne dohâ ptenâ wanch, “Life is very short.” Yes, “a time to be born, and a time to die.” We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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