Last week, my lovely Bride and I headed for a few days respite in Nashville. The vacation was planned around a birthday celebration for our youngest son (he turned forty, which doesn’t bode well for me). It was a wonderful getaway.
Unfortunately, we got off the plane to some tragic news. A shooting massacre at a Florida high school had occurred. Like the rest of the nation, we watched the news coverage with emotions ranging from deep sadness to rage.
As we viewed the coverage, I noticed the black smudges on many people’s foreheads and quickly realized it had taken place on Ash Wednesday. One picture in particular stood out to me as it frequently flashed across the TV screen. A woman in tears, obviously distraught, stood with others after the slayings. On her forehead, ashes were displayed in the sign of the cross.
In case you’re not from a tradition that observes Ash Wednesday, it’s a reminder that the Lenten Season is kicking off a time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. The imposition of ashes are accompanied by the recital of Genesis 3:19 which essentially tells us that we were formed from the ground, and to the ground we will return.
I doubt these were the words the killer had in mind, but the irony is mournful and stark. The mass death on this Ash Wednesday is a glaring reminder—especially when punctuated by the ages of the deceased. Prayer books of all kinds contain a committal service that reads:
O God, the great Shepherd of all sheep, receive now unto you our beloved brother/sister. As we commit his/her body to the ground—earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We commit his/her spirit to your eternal care.
We’ve all stood at grave sites to hear these (or similar) words read. Clergy types like me have been the ones, for the most part, to deliver these phrases. Such occasions are grim notices of our future physical demise. Old age is not guaranteed. As the worn Daniel Defoe quip says, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’m not so sure about taxes, but death is absolutely inevitable.
As we celebrated my son’s fortieth birthday, it crossed my mind that I’m twenty-eight years older than he. That alone is a harbinger that my time is creeping up—or winding down. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…
Even with ashes as a backdrop, I still find it really easy to celebrate life—especially on the occasions of our children’s’ birthdays. It helps to walk in the promises of Jesus that tell us there’s more to our lives than this physical existence on earth.
I harken back to the ancient book of Job. The beleaguered man of faith asked a very pertinent question. “If someone dies, will they live again?” He answered his own question with the conviction of a believer. “I will wait for my renewal to come.” (Job 14:14) I’m with him.
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and currently the pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]