Ash Wednesday and the Mortality of Man

Today is Ash Wednesday. While the rest of the Western world celebrates the feast of Saint Valentine honouring his martyrdom by giving chocolates and roses, sacramental Christians across the world are in a quasi-state of mourning. Ash Wednesday opens Lent, a season of fasting and prayer marking the first of the forty days of Lent, named for the custom of placing blessed ashes (made from the palm leaves which are waved on Palm Sunday) on the foreheads of worshipers at Ash Wednesday services. The ashes are a sign of penitence and a reminder of mortality, and are imposed with the sign of the cross. Ash Wednesday is observed as a fast in the church year and its observance takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. Following the example of the Ninevites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and reminds us that life passes away on Earth. As the priest applies the ashes to a person’s forehead, he speaks the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”.

I find it very appropriate that Ash Wednesday falls on the (now worldly) St. Valentine Day. There has never been a greater expression of love than the self sacrifice of Christ giving His life for us on the cross. Likewise, Easter on April Fools Day perfectly expresses the resurrection. Evil thought it had won, but Christ rising defeated death and made a fool of those who planned evil against Him. But upon reflection, I realize that never before has Ash Wednesday’s reminder of mortality hit home closer to me. I lost my mother on December 30th of 2017. We held the memorial service in Arizona last month, and will have one in Kansas later this month. Writing my part of the remembrance/eulogy for her service, I had lots of great memories flow back into my mind, and smiled a lot. I thought I’d be able to handle it no problem. Then going into the service, I saw her urn there, holding her ashes. As I watched the video with images of her through the years, a lump formed in my throat. And when it was my turn to speak, I confidently walked up. I opened my mouth to speak and only made it through a single line. I broke down. My hands shook violently and I wept. It was at that exact moment that I realized that this woman was gone. This woman who loved me, adopted me, took me into her home and raised me as her own. From a grandson in State custody to a beloved son. Gone.

After the service, as I held her ashes in my lap on the ride back to my sister’s home, I was struck by the saying “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”. Never before had that saying been so real, and so much of a punch in the face. Here I held a less than two kilograms of dust that was once my mother. No hopes, dreams, aspirations… nothing remained but ashes and the memories of all of the times “I love you” was spoken, but even greater loomed the times that it wasn’t spoken. Guilt, sadness, emptiness and loneliness began to envelop me. But what also crept in is the realization that one day, not far from now, I myself will be nothing more than ash and dust. More and more the words of my part of the Eulogy rolled through my head.

There isn’t a great deal about my mother that I can tell you from my early years, that will make perfect sense to adults, but I can tell you what, during my youth in her care, mattered most to me. In my eyes, her defining quality is simply, that she was there.

From the very beginning, when mother first brought me home, she created “gotcha Day” which was celebrated just like a birthday to let me know each and every year that I was wanted, and that I was loved. When I fell and was injured, when I was ill, when I had trouble at school, when I got into trouble, when I earned an award, when I had a piano recital, when I graduated, when I got married, when I had children… no matter the occasion, good or bad, she was always there.

But there was so much more to her than just an amateur photographer and wonderful mother/grandmother. A part that photos of her largely miss. The most striking thing about her is that in word or deed, she always sought to honor Christ and bring glory to God. Behind the scenes, she was the driving force of my fathers ministry. She arrived early each Sunday to set out the hymnals, fill the communion trays, set up the altar, light the candles, and when father gave his sermon, she was Jesus’ own official time keeper. She ended her Sunday afternoon taking communion to people in the hospital, or the disabled in their homes. She truly over a life of service, and of charity.

It was through her unsung ministry that she taught me the value of tithing not only treasure, but time and talent as well. And when my own musical abilities surfaced, not only did she get me a piano and sent me for weekly lessons, she also encouraged me to use this musical gift as a tithe of talent in the church. She truly entered His gates with thanksgiving, and encouraged others to do so as well.

Through the years, though I strayed, she remained firm in the shadow of the almighty. Her tireless prayers and unceasing devotion to and belief in Christ served as a beacon. And though for many years I remained stubborn, it was this beacon of love and spirit of service that eventually called me back to Christ.

That’s who my mother was. She was there. She was selfless, encouraging, and went out of her way to help others. She was a servant of Christ first, a helpmate to my father, a tireless and loving mother, doting grandmother, and friend to anyone in need. No matter what good may be said about her, it can all be summed up in three simple but extremely powerful words; she was there.

But now, in my mind, it has a new ending. It no longer ends with “she was there”, it continues to say “and now… she isn’t.”. She’s no longer a phone call away. She’s no longer an 18 hour drive to Arizona to visit. I can’t hear her voice, I can’t touch her hands. I can’t hug her and tell her that I love her. She isn’t there. The words of my pastor, of Karen and Sarah (who recently lost their mother), and of my wife all mix together in my head and I hear “She went to bed in pain and suffering, and woke up to breakfast with Jesus and with Jim (my father who reposed in the Lord in 2012). Despite assurances that she is in paradise, probably rocking babies just as she always said she wanted to, I don’t feel comforted. I keep going back to the Ecclesiastes feelings…

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.

The general feeling is of pointlessness. Why do we labour? Why do we come only to wither away. What is the meaning? Philosophers and Theologians who are giants in intellect compared to myself have wrestled with this thought for centuries. Even the great Solomon in all of his wisdom, having heard the very voice of God, pondered this. I don’t expect an answer, but it remains in the forefront of my mind, especially today. When I go and receive my ashes, I won’t be able to push the thought of my mother from my mind. I won’t be able to push down the imminent fear, no… terror of my own demise. The knowledge that I really will be dust. That I’m not invulnerable. That I won’t live forever. And I think that’s kind of the point. A final lesson imparted by my mother. She used to tell me that I didn’t know everything, that I wasn’t ten foot tall and bullet proof. I see now, clearly. There’s no better time to begin to reform my life, my actions, my words and my ways. I don’t have long on this earth, and I want to be with mother and father when I leave this plane of existence.

In closing, I leave you with the poem that I wrote in memory of my mother, may her memory be eternal, and may light perpetual shine upon her. I hope she’s rocking babies and dad is playing the guitar and singing them to sleep.

An early morning wake-up;
a breakfast fit for kings.
A comb through hair that stands up;
mom saw to all those things.

A word of encouragement;
as I set off to school.
A kiss and off to class I went;
my belly filled with fuel.

After school she greeted me;
with a hug and apple red.
And when I begged for candy;
“This is healthier.”, she said.

Then homework at the table;
with more help than was desired.
Whenever she was able;
even when she was tired.

Now off to prepare dinner;
her work was never done.
I should have stopped to help her;
but was having too much fun.

The after dinner dishes;
she washed them and she smiled.
Despite a life of wishes;
she lived for spouse and child.

And when she’d tuck me in to bed;
“I love you.” she would say.
Hugs with a kiss upon my head;
at the close of every day.

Then after bedtime prayer;
she turned off my bedroom light.
Then she’d turn, pause and stare;
and whisper to me, “Good night.”

That is who my mother was;
a selfless angel sweet.
She gave her all to us because;
she viewed us as God’s treat.

A life of serving others;
a lifetime filled with care.
Though she’d once had her ‘druthers;
my mother, she was there.

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