Ashes and the meaning of life

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 23, 2023

Smudge of a cross on columnist’s forehead on Ash Wednesday is a beginning-of-Lent reminder of the brevity of life. Selfie by Warren Harbeck

“Death is a part of all our lives. Whether we like it or not, it is bound to happen,” the Dalai Lama has said. “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 Feb. 22.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days (excluding Sundays) of reflection that precede Easter and Christ’s victory over death. The date is moveable, depending on the date of Easter in each year.

Traditionally, Anglicans, Catholics, and Lutherans – and more recently, members 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.”

What kind of lifestyle does this ashes-wisdom point to? Certainly not the self-serving shrewdness, narcissism, greed and bullying that underlies so much of public life today.

Although Ash Wednesday by name is unique to Christianity, the spirit of Ash Wednesday permeates many traditions.

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 smudging of ashes, is consistent with the teachings of Buddhism:

“Normally we do not like to think about death. We would rather think about life,” says Sogyal 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 yourself. 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.

As the Baha’i Faith writer Abdu’l Baha says: “Soon will your swiftly-passing days be over…. 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..., to be the Lord’s mercy to man; to be the Lord’s grace.”

In that spirit, then, many of our Catholic coffee companions treasure 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 a Stoney Nakoda proverb: Nîbi ne dohâ ptenâ wanch, “Life is very short.” So, let us rise from this vain world’s ash heap of mortality as offerings of love and compassion.


© 2023 Warren Harbeck

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