Ash Wednesday: Dying that We Might Come Alive

Once a year, the church invites us to die. Ash Wednesday asks us to practice our mortality. Practice your limits. Practice the idea that your life will not just go on like this forever. Once a year, the church invites us to die.

Death is tough. Many of us have accompanied a friend, or a loved one, (or friends loved ones) through the dying process. We’ve experienced sudden deaths and long lingering illnesses second hand.

The church’s yearly invitation is meant to help us remember that death is part of life. Our culture runs from death, tries to hide death.

One of the great tragedies of our days is how many people die alone. In my first years as a priest, working in downtown Washington DC, I took part in a funeral service we held each year for all of those who died on the streets of the city whose bodies went unclaimed by family and friends. We gathered to remember and to pray. These services were a protest to the avoidance our world invites around death and suffering.

The Church invites us to die, because grappling with your mortality, grappling with the certainty of death means getting clearer about life. The old question holds truth: if you knew you only had one day to live, one week, one year, how would you spent your time?

In that sense the beginning of Lent is not a morbid obsession, but a fulsome invitation to die:

  • Die to distractions.
  • Die to our small anxieties and insecurities.
  • Die to belief that we are only worthy if we have a so-called perfect body.
  • Die to the idea that a certain job or address will bring us happiness.
  • Die to all that which draws us away from the love of God.

Ash Wednesday is a yearly reminder, as the seasons begin to change, new life is available in every moment. If we can let all that distracts us die, and deepen our presence with those who surround us, deepen our awareness of the world in which we live.

A word about practicing this kind of dying.

Practice is key at Lent.

You heard about practice in both of our readings: from Isaiah and from Jesus. Note all the ways that Jesus in tonight’s gospel talks about practice.

I always loved reading this Gospel on Ash Wednesday in the Episcopal church because Jesus tells you not to disfigure your appearance, and then we go ahead and mark ashes on our foreheads, right? Jesus tells us not to pray on street corners. We spent the last several weeks recruiting volunteers to go do ashes-to-go on the street corner. There’s some irony in here.

Jesus is all about intention with this practice of prayer, this practice of generosity. Jesus asks us to be intentional about our practice. Isaiah likewise asks us about the intention behind our fast. What is the fast God chooses? Isaiah got me thinking about the Episcopal lay Theologian, and black leader, Verna. Dozier. Verna Dozier used to say:

“don’t tell me what you believe. Show me how the world is different because of your belief.”

Verna Dozier

Give up something that makes you sad

The best advice I have ever heard about Lent came from an old Jesuit chaplain at my college, the University of San Diego. Fr JJ. O’Leary was famous on campus as the shortest preacher. He often finished a homily in just 2 or three minutes. He’d ask a question, invite the congregation to “go into your hearts” to answer it, wait just a few seconds, and begin the next part of the service.

One Ash Wednesday, during the noon service, Fr. J.J. said simply that when we give something up for Lent, God doesn’t want us to give up things that make us happy. If we enjoy chocolate or a martini at the end of a long day we shouldn’t give them up. God wants us to give up something that made us sad. He then said. “I invite you go into your hearts to consider what you might give up that makes you sad.”

I once had someone ask my advice about a Lenten discipline. They wanted to give up all carbohydrates for Lent, and they were worried about receiving Eucharist. As gently as I could, I said, “if your discipline makes you question whether Jesus can be present for you in Communion, maybe you need to pick something else.” Jesus wasn’t keto. All of our lenten practices are just forms, they are passing reminders. If your practice gets in the way of your spirituality, let it go.

A Word of Caution for Lent

I always take a moment to caution on Ash Wednesday. Lent can be dangerous, if we make it about us. If Lent is a sort of self-improvement process, I get worried. I worry, in Lent, about all the disciplines we tend to take on around food. If you struggle with food, please pick something else for Lent. Or, make your Lenten Discipline simply: “I will feed my body.” So many people live with eating disorders and difficulties with food, please don’t add a layer of toxic spirituality into the mix.

  • What practice can you pick up that feeds you?
  • What practice helps you die to all that is distracting, all that is frustrating, all that is unhelpful
  • What practice might help you die to your false self, and come alive?

Ireneaus of Lyon, in the second century, said that “the glory of God is the person fully alive.” How can we be more fully alive? More deeply alive? More awake, more engaged, more present?

What Lenten Discipline will help you practice the knowledge that you will die. What practice will help you live from that knowledge? I invite you, go into your heart. Resolve, this Lent, to live as if each day, each moment matters. Find a discipline that will allow you to deepen your presence: to yourself, to your neighbors, to God.

May this Lent help you grow to be more fully alive, more fully yourself, that you might more fully serve the world in God’s name.


Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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