Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. At the Ash Wednesday service this evening, our rector Dianne Andrews will draw a cross on my forehead in ash and tell me to “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” She’ll do that for every person who walks up to the altar. In response, I’ll say “Amen!”
On Ash Wednesday, we remember our mortality. Which sounds like a downer, but paradoxically, it’s not. Personally, I find it relaxing, even comforting, to be reminded that I’m just another clueless mortal, like everybody else. I’m not God. What a relief!
The other day my husband David showed me a web page that our friend Douwe had shared with him. The page is on the website FlowingData, which “explores how statisticians, designers, data scientists, and others use analysis, visualization, and exploration to understand data and ourselves.” This particular page includes an animated chart to help me see “life expectancy” as a range of probabilities, rather than a single statistical prediction. (Scroll down the page to see the animated chart. It’s interactive, so you can enter your own age and gender, then watch your range of probabilities develop in a series of bouncing balls.)
Most every day since David shared the link with me, I’ve spent at least a little time looking at the balls bounce for my possible death – maybe this year, or next, or ten, twenty, or even thirty years from now. (Thirty years has very low probability, but hey, it’s been done before, so…) Watching those balls drop doesn’t feel bad to me. It feels like a spiritual practice. A meditation. It doesn’t fill me with dread, but with curiosity.
At tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, I get to be one of the lectors. I’ll read a passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, a passage that includes the thrilling sentence, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” Paul isn’t talking about the day of my mortal death, but the day, or the fleeting moment, when death loses its sting.
Paul says, it’s right now, baby.
Remember that you are dust: an earthly creature, made of blood, and bone, and star dust.
And to dust you shall return.
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For more musings on mortality, see my Ash Wednesday homily, “Mortality.”