As a festive celebration, it does not appear on the radar for most people outside Christian circles. Even for those of us who have spent our lives steeped in Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday often passes as an unremarkable day of the year.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of that forty day period Christians call “Lent” in which we prepare for the celebration of Easter. One the main functions of Ash Wednesday is to remind us of the inescapable reality that one day we will all die.
Each year on Ash Wednesday in churches around the world people gather and kneel or stand at the altar. A priest passes slowly by and marks each forehead with a dark smudge of ash in the form of a cross. With each mark, the priest says, “Remember you are dust; and to dust you shall return.”
The mortal forms to which we so tenaciously cling will one day be gone. As the apostle Paul wrote, “the present form of this world is passing away” (I Corinthians 7:31). Nothing that we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch is permanent.
The inevitability of death may seem a troubling truth to ponder. But, according to almost all spiritual traditions, pondering the hour of our death is a healthy and life-enhancing practice. There is something magical about impermanence.
Even the American Modernist poet Wallace Stevens found in death a salutary reminder of the beauty of life. In his complex poem “Sunday Morning”, Stevens imagines a woman on Sunday morning eating her breakfast. Despite the beauty of the morning, she is troubled by thoughts of death. She feels a deep longing for something permanent.
She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
This woman feels the transitory nature of life and yearns for something permanent, something in which she can trust. She wants to find some state of “imperishable bliss.”
But, Stevens observes
Death is the mother of beauty.
Impermanence is the soil in which beauty is born.
Without impermanence, the poet implies, it would be impossible to fully appreciate the gift of the perishable reality of all life.
Having grand-children, I have come to view my own death as the gift of space for them to take up their rightful place in this world and discover for themselves the beauty of this mortal form. Of course for Wallace Stevens that is all there is; there is nothing beyond the inevitability of our mortal nature.
The woman in Stevens’ poem hears a voice that reminds her,
“The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
The resurrection which Christians prepare to celebrate throughout Lent is, for Stevens, no reality. The tomb is not a “porch” into another realm of life; it is simply a “grave,” a dead end, the terminus of physical life.
Wallace Stevens believed freedom was found in accepting the reality of extinction at the end of our physical life.
For me, just as beauty transcends the forms in which it is manifest, so in death life is transformed into a realm of being that cannot be confined by these mortal frames. I cannot prove my faith in a larger reality beyond this physical dimension, any more than Stevens can demonstrate with finality that the end of the sensory world is the end of all consciousness.
I am content to trust that, as we make this journey of Lent towards the celebration of a life that never dies at Easter, there is something that out lasts the transient nature of form. Beyond the dust to which my body will return, there is a transcendent radiance that can never be destroyed.
Christopher Page is the rector of St. Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay. He writes regularly at: www.inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com