The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
March 6, 2019
One hundred and fifty years ago, our country was engaged in a great contest. A bloody, awful, Civil War. From the peach orchard at Gettysburg, the cornfield at Antietam, the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania, or even closer to home, at Galveston harbor, it was, as they say, “brother against brother.”
The Civil War and its immediate aftermath changed us, as a people. We cannot deny it. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were passed. Slaves were freed. The Ku Klux Klan began its campaign of racial terror. Jim Crow was instituted. The war even changed how we talked about ourselves. No longer would we refer to the United States in the plural – “the United States are a country.” We referred to ourselves in the singular – “the United States is a country.” But something else happened. Something spiritual happened. The Civil War changed how we died.
Drew Gilpin Faust wrote a whole book about it called, “This Republic of Suffering.” See, before the war, most people died at home. They laid out the body in the family parlor, they prayed around the body, they called the minister and had a funeral, and the deceased were buried, usually within a day or two. Death was amongst us. We knew death when we saw it. We had customs and rituals and practices to deal with it.
But then the war came. And thousands upon thousands of young men were dying away from home. Sometimes their bodies actually just disappeared – vaporized by cannon and musket. And even if their bodies were recovered, they were buried there on the battlefield or close by. A long, long way from home and the family’s minister.
And so death became a stranger. Entire industries cropped up to fill this void. Funeral homes, embalmers, hospitals. Our practices and customs changed. As a rule, we started dying away from home. The parlor at home became the funeral parlor.
The guns of the Civil War have ceased, but we are still living with their reverberation. Death is a stranger. It wasn’t until I was twenty two years old that I saw a dead body. We dye our hair, have surgery, take any kind of supplement anybody will sell us to try to look younger. Dying at home is now cause for investigation rather than cause for celebration. In my pastoral ministry, when parishioners have died, their family have called me and actually said, “tell me what to do next.” Death is a stranger.
Ash Wednesday, then, is a reminder of an earlier age when death was a companion. It is on this day that we publicly announce to the world that we know that are dust. On this day we publicly announce that death is coming for each of us. On this day we boldly proclaim that even our God underwent death with us. Ash Wednesday is the day that we gather to remember that death is our companion.
The great Anglican thinker, Jeremy Taylor, was a bishop in the 1600s. An age that knew death much better than we do. He wrote a fantastic little book called, “Holy Living, Holy Dying.” It sounds odd to the modern ears, but he says that you don’t really know what life is until you are ready to die. You don’t know what life is until you are ready to die. Jeremy Taylor says that everything is a reminder of death, everything you see preaches your funeral sermon. Your teeth fall out when you’re a kid, and that is an omen of things to come. Even I, when I look in the mirror and see a receding hair line, or “power alleys” as I call them, I know, that is just the beginning of the end. Even toward the end of our lives, we lose our appetites; the body preparing itself for no longer needing sustenance. And it sounds brutish but remember – today could be your last day. Knowing all of that is a holy thing.
In a few moments, we will be marked with the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. The image is powerful. Ash – for that is where we came from and that is where we are going. The psalmist put it best: “For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remember that we are but dust.” Ash – for that is where we are going.
And the cross. It just has to be the cross. The cross of Jesus defies death. It triumphs over death. It says to the world that even though death is coming for us we ought not be afraid because our Lord has already been there. A cross of ash will go on the youngest child in our church and upon the oldest adults. Because death is coming for each of us.
During these forty days of Lent, I ask you to prepare for death. Take this season of penitence and put your house in order. Make your will. Decide on what churches and charities you will fund through your bequests. Make a confession, to a priest if you want to. Say your prayers every day because any day might be the last time you can say your prayers this side of the grave. Do not wait until your death bed to tell your family how much you love them. Tell them now, because you may not receive the grace of a death bed.
All of this what we Episcopalians call, the “ars moriendi.” That’s Latin for, “the art of dying.” For the art of dying is also the art of living. The art of dying is committing yourself fully to the cross, to know the power and the love of Jesus Christ so that nothing, no not even death, can make you quake in fear. Learn the art of dying so that death is no longer a stranger but a friend. Learn this art of dying so that you can wear the cross of ashes without shame or embarrassment; but so that you can wear it knowing the sure and certain hope that the death of Jesus is your badge of honor.
During these forty days of Lent, learn how to die and then, you will be able to live for Christ.