I am supposed to say that our mortality is a gift.
But there were mass graves in the United States this year. We are not even a year removed from digging them. In 2020, death plundered quicker than we could shovel. The people who were unclaimed or too poor for a plot of their own were buried in mass graves; in our time, on our soil. There were mass graves in America this year and I have not reconciled them with the gift of our mortality.
On Ash Wednesday I am supposed to say that dying is good news.
Last year those words did not stick in my mouth like paste the way they do this year. Death came as it always does, but this year we could only stand behind double paned windows and wave at grandparents who were trying to remember our names. We crossed our fingers and thought through the risk of visiting friends. We wore masks or we didn’t. We thought about death every night and every night we heard the news tell us for how many the bell had tolled. People stood in line to get food because they lost jobs. In countries where there weren’t lines to stand in, people died. Dying wasn’t good news.
I’m supposed to write about how death is necessary for there to be life. Unless a grain falls to the ground, it cannot bear its fruit.
But I’m not in the “bearing its fruit” season, and neither are most of the people I pastor. We’re still grieving. We’re still angry. Joy comes in the morning, but it is not yet light. I do not feel comfortable sitting in a Zoom box telling my congregation on Ash Wednesday that death is good news…because right now, it isn’t. Right now, Samantha has lost her dad decades before she thought she would. Right now, the diagnosis is too fresh, and how to treat terminal cancer during a pandemic is not a decision a 22-year-old should have to make. Death has been cruel and unrelenting. We’re not looking for its fruit, we’re watching the surf, waiting for signs of the next swell.
We feel a kinship with Job who gets bad news after bad news.
A messenger came to Job and said “the oxen and donkeys have been carried away. I alone escaped to tell you.” While he was speaking, another came and said, “the sheep and servants have been consumed by fire…” While he was speaking another came to say, “the camels and servants have been carried off…” While he was still speaking another came and said, “while your children were dining, a wind came and rocked the four corners of your house. They are dead.”
Wave after wave. We all felt the weight of our mortality as the pandemic ushered death, unwelcome into our homes. Then we lost jobs. Then our parents got sick and we wanted to care for them, but it was hard not to argue every time we saw them.
We dug mass graves in the spring and uncovered mass graves in the summer. In 2020, mass graves were unearthed outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. 2021 will mark 100 years since the massacre in Tulsa put hundreds of brown bodies into the dirt. The spring taught us that death comes to all, but the summer reminded us that it does not come equally.
So this year, I am approaching Ash Wednesday with more than the usual amount of fear and trembling. There will be no blithe talk about death. Job has no use for empty words. After the waves of loss and death have crashed onto him, Job gathers himself.
Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshipped.
Job’s response is our liturgy this year. He stands up. He expresses great anger. He shows the signs of mourning. He falls before God. And then, believe it or not, he worships. The messengers are confused, but while Job lies there on the ground mourning the loss of his family and livelihood, he starts to sing. From the dust, Job blesses the name of the Lord.
We need to create space for a liturgy like Job’s this year. Ash Wednesday is exactly that space. It is that holy day on which we pause to be angry, to grieve, to repent, to accept our limitations, and mysteriously through all of that, to worship.
Our mortality is a gift and death can orient us towards life; that is what I am supposed to say on Ash Wednesday. This year, there will be a knot in my throat as I say them. Thankfully that knot doesn’t diminish these truths, it underlines them. It makes them all the more important to say.
I admire Job. I admire Job’s trust even in his suffering. If I do not get to the end of his liturgy, at least I will begin it. And by God’s Spirit I may yet rise up and bless the name of the Lord with all the rich-timbred fervor of a good Reformed Pastor.
But right now, my prayer is simply this: God, I’m done.
The good news of Ash Wednesday is Christ’s kind and simple response: