It’s a curious thing: announcing to the world that you are not dead.
Mark Twain once sent a cable to a U. S. newspaper after his obituary had been mistakenly published. His note read, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated…”
Recently, news of my death was reported by my high school alumni website, on their “in remembrance” page. A younger alumna visited the site and knew my family. Suspecting a misprint, she contacted my in-laws who lived nearby. My in-laws called me with the sad news. I looked it up. Indeed, there I was, named with deceased classmates in bold relief.
The alumni webmaster graciously apologized and corrected the error immediately. She mentioned that after I had missed my recent high school reunion, some well-meaning classmate emailed her the news of my death. (It’s weird to imagine the subject of my demise making the rounds of the cocktail party banter!)
Still, it’s a sobering experience — the process of announcing you are not dead, but alive. You think about your own mortality: what will your name look like on some page or gravestone? Hopefully, your name will be spelled right, and your name will have some meaning for someone somewhere.
Just in time for Lent, the news of my “death” serves as a timely reminder of what my life really means.
On Ash Wednesday, we receive ashes upon the forehead, reminding us of our death. There is no escape from it. All temporality is eventually reduced to dust and ash.
When I was little, there was a fire in my grandmother’s house. No one was hurt, but I remember the thick black dust and ash. Much was lost. When the fire department leaves you ask: What survived the heat and flames? What can be found as you sift the ash?
St. Paul contemplated this theme in terms of the “Day” of final judgment:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire ( See 1 Corinthians 3: 10-15).
Even though St. Paul was giving a warning to preachers of the gospel, it carries meaning for all of us who will be judged by Christ.
When the Church puts ashes on our brow… It makes us think… really think … about our death.
The accounts of saints and martyrs give us a proper approach to death. They understood death for what it is: the end of mortal life, a punishment for sin and, yet, something that Christ has transformed. Death is no longer an end in itself. Jesus is on the other side of the veil. And by understanding the truth about death, the saints could lives that proclaimed the truth about life in Christ.
At baptism, we were marked with the sign of the cross. Baptism both cleanses us from sin and welcomes us into the family of God. But it does so by reminding us we are baptized into the death of Christ, so that someday we may also arise with Him. It gives meaning both to our lives, and our eventual deaths.
Ultimately, our baptism means we do mean something to Someone after all. We mean something to God and the family of God, being incorporated into Christ and the Church. And because of Christ, we have a future and a hope. If we turn from sin, and believe the Gospel, there is more to this life than what we see and experience here on earth.
Saints and martyrs understood this. This is why the Church celebrates their feast days on the dates of their deaths! It is a birth to new life in heaven!
In Lent, we get down to essentials. Just like the saints of old, we must understand the truth behind our beliefs if we intend live a Christian life in its fullness. Lent gives us the tools to make a fruitful assessment.
For forty days in Lent, we link our life with the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, entering solemn days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This desert experience also puts us in touch with our mortality.
These Lenten practices are intended to produce a “dying” to self: we hunger, we thirst, we need God, and we need each other. But this dying away signifies more than mere dying alone… it is meant to announce the budding of new life in Christ.
Knowing this “Good News,” we can better live these Lenten days. Lent, then, becomes a kind of holy addition by subtraction. By pruning back, we grow more fruitful in the days ahead: grateful for the grace of redemption that springs forth on Easter Sunday.
So, that, one day, after years of faithful practice, when the news of our death is finally announced, it will not be treated as a sad end, or a final remembrance, but as a birth day… announcing we are not dead after all, but alive in Christ.