Embracing mortality while maximizing your life

Published 5:42 pm Wednesday, February 23, 2022

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Ash Wednesday is next Wednesday, March 2nd.  I have a love-hate relationship with the day.  For two straight years, events occurred on Ash Wednesday that radically changed my faith and my life.  There’s no need for details here, as some of them are private and I don’t know you all well enough yet! It’s enough for me to say that I experienced my own kind of death two years in a row on Ash Wednesday.  Which is fitting, because Ash Wednesday is all about death!  Well, not all about death, but it is a day set apart for Christians to come to church, get ashes smudged on their forehead, and hear the words of the priest: ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’

There’s very little that can compare with smudging 200 ashen crosses upon beloved members of my congregation.  It’s even weirder to place those same ashes and say those same words over a newborn.  It doesn’t happen often, but often enough for me to know it’s a bizarre feeling when called upon to pronounce the eventual death of a little bustling ball of joy.

When written out, I can’t help but recognize how morbid my description of Ash Wednesday is.  I suppose I’m okay with that. Ash Wednesday stands as a corrective to the misguided idea that humanity is destined for immortality.  It challenges the wisdom of those who spend their life searching for the means to extend their life when really they have missed out on meaningfully living the only life we are given.

There is a certain freedom in collectively affirming our mortality.  When we are freed from the illusion (or delusion) that we can somehow escape death, we are then afforded the opportunity to focus that much more on the present reality.  When we aren’t preoccupied with securing our place in the afterlife or actually and truly living forever, our attention and energy are freed to ensure that this world, the only one we have, is being renewed, transformed, and restored.

Focusing primarily on this world isn’t a novel concept, but it’s one that seems to be forgotten.  How many of us think about what kind of ‘legacy’ we are leaving behind? Or how many people desire to be memorialized now and into eternity for some kind of gift, bequest, or endowment? Sure, it’s nice to get recognition for these things, but when they become our motivation, then the quality of the gift is fundamentally diminished. In fact, it’s no longer truly a gift it the primary purpose is extending one’s legacy throughout the ages.

With just a little bit of time, we could think about all sorts of other examples that prove the point I’m making.  Only by embracing our mortality, embracing the death-bound nature of humanity, can we be liberated from the fear of such a death.  Only by embracing our mortality can we move through and beyond the baser urges and inclinations of human nature.  To embrace our mortality is to embrace the fact that we have just one shot at making the most of our life, and I’m someone who’s convinced that making the most of my life necessarily includes working for the best life of my neighbor.  In that sense, embracing the mortality of Ash Wednesday can be the beginning of rejecting a life of selfishness and embracing an ethos of altruism.

If you’ve never been to an Ash Wednesday service, we will be having services at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in English at 7 a.m. and 12 p.m. and in Spanish at 7pm.  You are more than welcome to come, receive the ashes, embrace your mortality, and hopefully leave more committed to loving those around you than ever before.

Chris Adams is the Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.