The Rev. Teri Daily
On this day, ashes are smeared on our body as – in the words of the prayer book – “a mark of our mortal nature.” We acknowledge that we are mortal creatures, that we are created from dust and we will return to dust. We often don’t fully recognize our mortality when we are young. Besides the loss of pets, I didn’t see a lot of death as a young child. The oldest person in my world on a daily basis was our neighbor, Ms. Lucy. She was in her eighties when we moved next door. Ms. Lucy was a tall and proud woman, a prominent person in our southern town of two thousand. She wore Jacqueline Kennedy type dresses in shades of powder blue, rose, and mint green. She never forgot her make-up, and her clip-on earrings were spot-on for the occasion at hand. After the first few months of living there, my initial fear of her subsided.
In fact, I had a very special bond with Ms. Lucy. We shared the same birthday, just eighty years apart. Even as she aged over the years, becoming shorter and slower, she always celebrated our birthday with a twinkle in her eye. I wanted her there as we cut my cake and sang happy birthday. When my birthday party included going to a movie in a nearby town, Ms. Lucy went with us. Even as her body began to fail her, she still celebrated life in that body. One day we convinced her at the age of about ninety to get in the face-to-face glider of the swingset with us. When she got stuck and I had to get our dad to help get her out, our dad told us to never, ever again talk her into trying something new like that. She was too old, he told us. I don’t know that Ms. Lucy would have agreed. She was at home in her body; her mortal nature did not mean, for her, that life itself grew old.
As I grow older, I long to be like Ms. Lucy – at home in my body, at home with my mortality. That isn’t easy in a culture that seeks the fountain of youth – where people sign up to have their bodies frozen after death, where there are all sorts of products to hide any indication of aging, and talk of death is still taboo in many social settings. As we get older, we try to hide the wisdom and experience of our bodies, as well as the stories they tell.
And our bodies do tell a story. Each year brings at least one bodily change; and usually it brings several – all signs of our changing nature as creatures, all signs of our mortality. New laugh lines from time spent with friends, hypertension made worse by the stress in our life, a new scar from a tragic accident or a surgical intervention, stiffness in the morning that comes with age, short hair just now growing back after chemotherapy.
Lent gives us a chance to grow more at home in these changing bodies of ours. The disciplines of Lent include an awareness of the embodied nature of our spiritual life. Our stomach growls when we fast. Our knees bend in prayer (or at least we sit still). When we reach automatically for our smart phones, we stop our hand, remembering that we’ve given up Facebook for Lent. Any act of kindness requires a movement of our body, no matter how slight. Lenten disciplines reshape our life and remind us that we are finite creatures, not God; for when we take on a new discipline, we often must give up something else. There are only so many hours in the day or so much energy to give.
But here’s the thing we learn during Lent: Our mortality, our finitude, is not something to fear or to dread; it is something to embrace. Our mortal nature – and all the changes that come with it through the years – brings not just death; it also brings new life and a chance for redemption. The march forward allows us to repent and change course. When we become at home in our bodies, when we really accept our mortality, we learn the amazing truth that we are both dying each and every moment and being made new each and every moment. Nothing we have done in our past and nothing we have failed to do need be the final word on our life. The gift of new life is always ours for the taking.
As we slow down and practice Lent, let’s embrace this mortal nature of ours. Let’s take time to listen – not only to God and those we love and those in need – but also to our own bodies. This is part of our Lenten work. Our bodies can help us know how what is going well in our lives, and what needs to change. They can help us know what needs to die, so that something new can be born in us – something that makes us more and more into the image of Jesus.
So today as the ashes are smeared on our foreheads in the shape of a cross, let us remember that despite our mortality, maybe even because of our mortality, life itself – through the grace of God – need never grow old.