I often joke about having prepared my funeral liturgy so that whichever member of the clergy ends up officiating does not “screw it up”. While that is a factual statement, I often use that line as a symbol of my enlightened nature regarding my own mortality. Look at me, being so aware of my own death – at only twenty-two! I am so faithful! The fact of the matter, however, is that my active hypochondria and semi-constant fear of having a deadly disease betrays my true feeling: that my own death scares the hell out of me.
On Ash Wednesday, Christians will gather in half-empty churches to be told that they will die. We assemble only to have someone smear ashes on our heads while they calmly and confidently assure us that from dust we come, and to dust we will return. In this regard, Ash Wednesday is something of a polarizing liturgical practice. In my own tradition, many churches and clergy do not (or refuse to) observe Ash Wednesday, feeling that it is yet another example of the guilt-inducing, finger-pointing malice of the Church. Among a sizeable number that do observe Ash Wednesday, there are those who are wont to soften the message. These churches reassure people that they come from stardust and to stardust they will return, emphasizing the specialness of each human being. There are those who turn to a more “missional” approach and whisper to each congregant that they should “repent and believe in the Gospel”. Now, I am not indifferent to those who have been guilt-induced and on the receiving end of the pointed finger of the Church. Nor am I opposed to affirming the dignity of God’s creatures, nor repentance, nor trusting in the promise of God-in-Christ.
I am opposed to avoiding the truth of our deaths.
A few weeks back, I ordered Kate Bowler’s new book thinking it would make for appropriate Lenten reading. Bowler is a historian and professor at Duke Divinity School, specializing in the study of the prosperity gospel. She is 35-years old, a wife, and a mother. She is funny, driven, and capable. She also has incurable stage IV colon cancer.
Her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, is Bowler’s testimony about dying – and she truly is that blunt. Kate Bowler is quite clear that she is discovering what it means to die. The fact that this book arrived two days before Ash Wednesday is nothing short of timely. Bowler thrusts the reader into her world of beauty, grief, chemotherapy, laughter, platitudes, cursing, and prayer. In short, she shows us what it looks like come face-to-face with the looming certainty of our deaths.
That we need a book like Bowler’s to open us up to the tragic, quotidian dimensions of the world suggests that the Church has not been authentically truthful enough in its witness. Indeed, among other times of the Church year, Ash Wednesday is when Christians stare the despair and tragedy of the world in the face and say nothing apart from “this is the reality of things”. On this focus of Ash Wednesday, Bowler writes that it “is so grim. There is no denying our finitude. It is plain and hard and true.”
The Church, in all its forms, has become expert in denying tragedy. Evidenced in the title of her book, the Body of Christ in our age and location has in many ways become the Church which finds more comfort in platitudinal, metaphysical certainty than the promise of God-with-us. In our pleasure-enhancing culture, we have opted to identify with the Empty Tomb to the exclusion of the Cross by which that tomb’s emptiness is made intelligible and salvific. We have, to echo H. Richard Niebuhr, become the people of Christ without a Cross.
Bowler recounts attending the Olsteen’s megachurch in Houston on Good Friday. After songs which paid lip service to the death of the Son of God on a godforsaken hill, Victoria Olsteen came skipping out onto the stage chirping out something to the tune of “Isn’t it great that we serve a risen Lord, y’all?!” It is easy enough to deride the Olsteen’s and their prosperity congregation for such liturgical whiplash and curtailing of the Cross, but they embody the discomfort that the wider Church shares when it comes to inexplicable – even inevitable – tragedy.
This is perhaps why we struggle with Ash Wednesday, symbolic as it is of our finitude. In our preference for never-ending life and the bounty of the resurrection, we have tucked the Cross in a back corner as an unfortunate yet negligible step on Jesus’ path to an Empty Tomb. In so doing, the Church has hidden away the site of God’s fullest, most revelatory self-identification with a broken Creation. However, Jürgen Moltmann insists that “the resurrection does not evacuate the Cross, but fills it with eschatology and saving significance.” The Crucified God did not cease to be the Crucified God on Easter morning. The crucifixion is not denied by the Empty Tomb; rather, the Crucified One is vindicated by the Living God.
Indeed, Christians cannot engage with nor interpret reality apart from its revelation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this eschatological trajectory announced and sealed in him which informs any and all accounts we take of actuality. One element does not negate another; each contextualizes the others. Christ’s life is inseparable from his death which is inseparable from his resurrection, yet none cancels out another. All are operative within and as God’s work in Christ. Each contextualizes the others. It is this reality which becomes apparent on Ash Wednesday, as witness to our deaths – deaths which are secured in Christ by the Spirit, yet never minimized for the tragedies that they are – in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection as communicated in Jesus’ life and teachings.
The Church’s invitation is to acknowledge the facts of our dust-to-dust lives, and to contextualize those facts within the life of the Trinity – a contextualization which does not force meaning where none is to be found and which does not promise that everything happens for a reason. Bowler refuses the suggestion that leaving her child motherless and having cancer strike her down in her prime is part of an “everything-happens-for-a-reason” metaphysics. That is not a Christian framework. No, the Christian account of reality is seen “on the cross, [where] we see Satan unleashed upon the tortured body of the Son of God. The Power of Sin and Death had its victory that day. He absorbed it into himself. And what does the resurrection tell us? It tells us that God is Victor over Sin and Death.”
Thus we may say with Paul that nothing, not even death and tragedy and stage IV cancer, can separate us from the liberating and life-giving love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is because of that foundational truth that Christians will have palm ash wiped across their faces as they face this other foundational truth:
You are going to die, and God will love you yet.
 Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. (New York: Random House, 2018.) 128.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. 2nd ed. (New York: SCM Press, 1973). 182.
 Fleming Rutledge, “Something Evil This Way Comes”, Generous Orthodoxy, accessed February 13, 2018. http://ruminations.generousorthodoxy.org/2015/03/something-evil-this-way-comes.html.