Ash Wednesday held new meaning for me this year with the stage IV cancer diagnosis. I’m six days in to my unplanned medical sabbatical (what I prefer to call my time on medical disability), and it’s been sobering to observe my body finally coming off of the adrenaline high that kept me going for far too long. This day has given me the permission to speak truth: I am tired. I am weary. My body needs this time of rest if there’s any chance to recover, heal, and hear those magic words “No Evidence of Disease.” I won’t get there by depending on myself or any imagined “super hero” abilities to defy death and appear magically in control.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are the powerful and painful words my friend and colleague said as she marked my forehead with ashes this morning. I deliberately chose the quiet chapel service at the church she serves because I needed safe space to experience this moment in a new way, in the shadow of dis-ease and with the words “terminal” and “palliative” still ringing in my ears.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not throwing in the towel. I’m not crying “uncle” to the cancer cells. Not a chance! What I am doing is entering the season of Lent by acknowledging that the shadow of death is just over my shoulder, and my hope lies in God and God alone. But this is true for all of us. None of us is promised more than the present moment; we just choose to live like we have an unlimited span of life ahead. We can wipe that cross off our foreheads, but we can’t erase the truth of it.
Yep, nothing like Ash Wednesday and a cancer diagnosis to set the record straight. This is also a powerful gift to carry into the 40 days of Lent. Without this journey to the cross, without death, there can be no resurrection and no promise of real and lasting life. Only by walking the road to Jerusalem with Jesus and looking unflinchingly at death is there lasting hope or reason to live for something beyond oneself. This is the only path to the risen Christ.
Death will come for all of us–sooner or later. Deny it all you want; it won’t change the truth of it. Every day is a gift of God. Every breath is Spirit-infused. All of creation is held together in Christ. Or, as Eugene Peterson so beautifully renders this idea in The Message (Colossians 1:18b-20):
“From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”
None of us makes it to Easter without the painful reality of Lent. We need that ash cross to tattoo truth smack between our eyes. But here’s the thing: we are not just the dust you dump out of the vacuum bag into the rubbish bin. We are stardust. We are inextricably linked to one another, to all of creation, and to the Christ.
As my friend marked that ashen cross on my forehead and said those somber words, I took courage and comfort in knowing there is so much more. Cancer may strip me of all my illusions of security, invincibility, and layers of self-defined identity and worth, but it will never have the last word. That belongs to God, and here is truth for me–and for you, for all of us: “Remember that you are the stuff of stardust, and to stardust you shall return.”
(Photos: sblezard and Gianni, Creative Commons License. Thanks!)