I have been in that place a number of times with friends, family, parishioners, and complete strangers. My guess is that you too know all about it, either first or second hand, this same scene. A meeting in the pit of your stomach of sadness, fear, hurt and disbelief. How could the end have come? So soon or so near? As I said words do not suffice but some come close.
The passage from the book of the prophet Joel that we heard earlier was not about this topic but it could have been. Listen once more: “A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains…” Maybe not a full description but it starts to get there.
But we did not come here today on Ash Wednesday just to enter that gloom and thick darkness did we? We did not come here to church simply to stir up difficult memories that we might much rather leave well alone in the basement of our minds, did we? No. But the words we receive as part of our liturgy on this day are not exactly light and frivolous are they: “Almighty God from the dust of the earth you have created us. May these ashes be for us a sign of our mortality and penitence…” Followed shortly thereafter with “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Death and dying is not a topic that most of us like to speak about. We know that death is inevitable but it seems a lot easier to accept when the conversation is about someone else rather than ourselves or our family members. Obviously I fully understand that. But our society has a strange aversion to speaking about it, thinking about it, planning for it, honouring it in any way. We will talk about lots of things: trying to look younger, intimacy, money, keeping healthy, climate change, recycling, composting, the weather but death is one we often avoid. Why? Well I am sure many a thesis has been written on the topic but I just wonder if it is related to an obsession with the physical life and little care put into the spiritual life. I could be wrong and it may be a great oversimplification but I can’t help but wonder if there is a correlation. We talk about physical things fairly easily but spiritual things get into an area that we as a society would much rather avoid.
Feeding our soul is about connecting our true self with God’s self. It means being completely honest with ourselves before God. Questioning priorities, putting love ahead of profit, seeing grief as a part of life not something to be ignored, allowing compassion to give some guidance rather than the bottom line. Or as Jesus said in the gospel, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Feeding our soul means lifting up things in prayer to God: our worries, doubts, fears and desires. It means spending time acknowledging that we are not perfect and we need God’s guidance. Feeding our soul means seeking God’s forgiveness and then echoing God’s absolution in the way that we live our lives. Feeding our soul means eating and drinking holy food that has been set aside to remind us of the life and living of Jesus Christ. Feeding our soul means affirming our faith in the God who calls us to a deeper meaning and a deeper purpose. Feeding our soul means acknowledging that the death of a loved one is filled with grief, sadness and loss, please don’t deny that, but it is also filled with a God who says I am with you. God says this over and over and over again, I am with you. And by faith, we know that in Jesus we saw and witnessed this holy presence first hand.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Forty days beginning with the sign of ashes, an ancient sign to mark that we have entered a whole new season, a whole new time: one where we contemplate things that are a little more difficult and worrying. We may simply want to avoid this and treat Lent as a diet plan or exercise regimen but it is not that. It is about contemplating those things that many in our society do not want to consider: the purpose and meaning of life and death. Opening our hearts and minds to new encounters with the unwavering and holy hand of God. Responding to how your faith influences your decisions and your desires.
May this season be for you not simply a new time to add more busyness to your schedule but may it be a deepening time where you look at true priorities, goals and purposes. May it feed your soul… and your mind and your heart.