By Walter Fenton
March 2, 2022
Almost every family has at least one good storyteller in its midst, or even two or three. They’re the ones who tell stories that make our sides hurt with laughter at Thanksgiving or make us weep with a mixture of reverence and sorrow at the passing of a loved one. They remind us that stories shape who we are, who we hope to become, and who we want to emulate as we live out our days.
My family was blessed with many good story tellers. Both my mom and dad lost their mothers when they were young children, between five and ten. So when my seven siblings and numerous cousins gathered around to listen to our parents, aunts and uncles tell family stories, they sometimes started with stories about their mothers’ deaths.
Of course, none of my siblings and cousins knew our maternal grandmothers or even laid eyes on them except in a photograph or two. It was the stories of their deaths that brought them to life for us. Stories told lovingly and reverently, in soft and tender voices, that settled in our hearts and minds, enabling us to envision them, even remember them, though we never knew them.
For Christians, the observance of Ash Wednesday begins the retelling of our core story, and it too begins with death, namely our own. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I was not raised in a tradition that observed Ash Wednesday, so it was not until I was in college that I attended a service and had ashes imposed on my forehead. As I recall, I was in a “collecting religious experiences” phase, so it was like trying on a tattoo I could easily remove. Fortunately, that sophomoric attitude gave way to a deeper understanding by the time I became a pastor and responsible for imposing the ashes on others.
What a profound privilege to look into the eyes of people you come to love – some elderly, some children, and many in between – and say their names followed by those words: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. What an amazing thing that people would stand in a line to be reminded they are going to die. Why do they that year in, and year out?
Last year the Rev. Tim Keller, Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, wrote candidly about his response to learning he had pancreatic cancer:
“I have spent a good part of my life talking with people about the role of faith in the face of imminent death. But when, a little more than a month after [my book On Death] was published, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was still caught unprepared. I found myself thinking, What? No! I can’t die. That happens to others, but not to me. When I said these outrageous words out loud, I realized that this delusion had been the actual operating principle of my heart.”
As Keller confesses, it is easy to tell ourselves a story that is a delusion. So people who willingly stand in line to hear the words ashes to ashes, dust to dust, are not engaging in some macabre rite. No, they are simply confessing their need to be reminded that they will die. It’s a small, courageous, faithful act that many Christians do in the belief that it will help them be even more courageous when they are looking at death straight in the face.
And they are actually doing more than that. Ash Wednesday begins the story of Christ’s journey to the cross, to his death. People who come forward for the imposition of the ashes are confessing that in some mysterious way their deaths are swallowed up in Jesus’ death, and their hope for life after death will be caught-up in his bodily Resurrection.
We Christians tell ourselves this story and even re-enact it in some ways because we know how important it is to remember we are delivered from our slavery to sin and fear of death through Christ’s death and Resurrection.
Unlike Thomas, we did not know our Lord in his pre- and post-Resurrection flesh. We never touched his pierced hands or put our hands in his side, and we certainly have no photos of him, yet we remember him and believe in him as we come forward for the imposition of the ashes. And so, in addition to the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we also remember what Jesus told Thomas about us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
On Ash Wednesday, we remember who we are and who it is that gathers our stories of death and life into his great story of our redemption through his cross and Resurrection.
The Rev. Walter Fenton serves as the secretary for the Transitional Leadership Council.