“It is appointed once for a person to die. After this the judgment.” -Hebrews 9:27
“But this is the hour—when darkness reigns.” -Jesus
Last year, Bart Jansen woke up to find his long-time pet cat “Wilbur” was dead. And that was unacceptable for Mr. Jansen. So he did what anyone of us would do: He turned his dead pet into a helicopter.
He combined the fine art of taxidermy and small engine motors. And now Wilbur had been given wings…
As a preacher, I’ve done a lot of funerals and one of the things that I’ve noticed is how uncomfortable most people are during these times. I think it’s the same reason Bart put wings on his dead cat, or why the taxidermy industry exists at all. We don’t like to be reminded of death, and funerals are the reminder of the ultimate reality that we can’t escape.
And this is precisely why we need moments like Ash Wednesday.
Now I know for some of the readers of this blog, Ash Wednesday may sound like something just for Catholics. And I get that. Growing up, I was under the impression that all things Catholic were suspect.
But Ash Wednesday was going on long before Protestants and Catholics ever split. It’s an annual reminder that Christians have observed every year, for thousands of years It’s when we remember that from dust we came and to dust we will return. It is profoundly ancient and biblical.
Think about Job for a second. Do you remember what Job does when he hears the news about his family tragically dying? He covers himself in ashes.
We are all Job
In his famous sermon on the book of Job, Jonathan Edwards pointed out that all of our stories will one day be like his. Sure Job lost everything in one day while most of us experience these losses more slowly. But rest assured one day each of us will be on the door of death, leaving everything behind.
James Stockdale was a war-hero and POW during the Vietnam war. He had lived through the underbelly of the human condition and wound up becoming an admiral, and eventually ran with Ross Perot for the Vice-President. When they asked him about the other POW’s who didn’t survive he always said the same thing:
“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter’ And then Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving and then it would be Christmas again. One by one, they died of a broken heart.”
I understand why we want to ignore death, why we pretend it’s something that just happens to other people. But there is a reason that the church has practiced Ash Wednesday for so long. Because eventually optimism is really hard to keep someone’s faith going.
Eventually, even the most die-hard of optimist is going to realize that the world is too broken, and too evil to just be more positive. And the worst part, is that in our more honest moments we know that evil is in our own hearts as well.
Our biggest Temptation is to try and withdraw from the suffering of the world, and most of us are “fortunate” enough to have enough money and resources to do it. We can get a botox here and a tuck there to make it look as if we aren’t really dying. But this goes against the grain of the Gospel.
There’s a time in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus has been arrested, he’s headed to die, and one of the only phrases he says is “Now is the hour When Darkness Reigns.” I like that sentence. Because Jesus could have stopped this whole thing, and skipped the pain. He could have ignored the suffering of the world, but instead he acknowledged that there was darkness in the world, and there are days when it seems like the darkness is winning.
This is at the heart of Ash Wednesday. It’s when the Church willingly enters into and acknowledges that All is not right with the World.
The End of The Story
You know, we hear stories about guys so attached to their cat that they put wings on them and pretend they didn’t die, and we think they’re crazy. But I would argue we do the same thing everyday. Our country spends over $20 Billion dollars a year on cosmetic surgery. We pretend death is just a dream.
Which is a bit like putting wings on a stuffed cat, and pretending it can fly.
So back to James Stockdale, he said the optimist never made it in the POW camps, but then they would ask about him. How did you survive? And he said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into a defining event of my life, which, in retrospect I would not trade.”
There is a difference between moping and mourning. There is a difference between whining and bearing in the suffering of the world, and there is a difference between optimism and hope.
Hope is looking darkness squarely in the face and saying Now may be your hour, but you will not rule the day.
Hope is choosing to have faith that the end of the story is going to make all the loss make sense.
Optimism wants to avoid the funeral, Hope can’t wait for Easter.
It is from dust we came, and to dust we will return.
But if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that God can do a lot with dust.