A small Lutheran church out in Sunbury, Ohio boasting no more than 150 members, came together many years ago as so many congregations have done, to participate in the solemn service of Ash Wednesday. The darkness of the evening coincided neatly with the somber attitude of the worship, and the service struck me as rather boring (as all services did at the time) but at least different. The altar was now adorned with a dark purple covering and our pastor had changed his robe to a somber color as well. The lack of music accompanying our hymns, the dimmed lights, and the quiet, restrained moods of both worshipers and pastor captivated me. Being twelve at the time, I don’t remember too much about the sermon, actually nothing.
But then came the ashes.
Prepared from the burned remnants of the palm branches used for the preceding year’s Palm Sunday, the ashes were real, a physical proof of solemnity. The congregation slowly moved to the aisle—way and formed a single line; the pastor’s family always sat in the front and my throat thickened as I saw Pastor Riggs put an ashen cross on the foreheads of, first, his loving wife, and then his daughter and son. As he administered the grim marking, he delivered the equally bleak words, "For dust you are, and to dust you shall return." It’s so easy to pass by this terrifying thought; who really wants to remember that their relatives, friends, and loved ones will inevitably become mere ash? For me, this truth caught on more strongly than ever as I watched my father stand before the simple altar and receive the symbol.
That memory came back to me this year on Ash Wednesday. This time I was at college, in the weightroom, when I was confronted by that same cross adorning the forehead of the guy pumping iron right across from me. As I saw more around campus, the same awareness of death hit me.
At times like this, one feels alone. Death does not often collect in giant handfuls sparing one from the pain of dying alone or watching a loved one die. Death comes to each of us, whether through the pain of violence or the quiet strain of old age. We cannot conquer death or the fear that accompanies it. My father’s strong arms or wise words, his reassuring presence and even his unending love cannot save me from this inevitable moment. He will, in fact, fall prey to the menace himself: which event I’m more afraid of, I do not know.
Faith in God becomes so much more real when confronted with trials, when the faith faces reality and the road gets tough. The sickening feeling of fear, even desperation, becomes all consuming. Death is no joke. It evokes suffering, even terror. It seems our culture has tried to drown out that fact with everything from sitcoms to science dramas. In every aspect of life we try to convince ourselves that death can be forestalled, even finished once and for all. Is it fear of the pain of those final hours or panic at the unknown that impels us to put such an emphasis on the here and now? Some may say they do not fear death. Some may claim they are resigned to the facts that bind our existence on this earth, but I dare anyone to really dwell on the reality of death and not experience feelings of pain and grief.
What do you say in a moment like this? Where can anyone look for consolation in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death? Where is the strength that one can cling to in the face of life’s realities? I could not even look to the person on whom I leaned the most. Death would claim him too. The symbol of death that adorned the foreheads of my friends, relatives, and even myself, carried a weight that threatened to bury me. I could not understand how death was not the victor. Only years later when I talked to my father did I fully realize the hope that the simple ashen cross embodied. That symbol represents death, but one in particular; the death of Christ. It was he who was stripped of the glory of Palm Sunday, and it was he who faced death. Even death on a cross.
But death could not hold him.
When he rose three days later, Jesus conquered death. That cross now proclaims a new birth of freedom. Fear has no place in the life of the Christian. While it is true that human endeavor cannot save us from death, the strength of the Rock of Ages stands ever ready to guide us safely through Jordan’s waters.
We can find strength only in a power greater than death itself.
We can conquer fear and death itself in God almighty.
It was at Hope Lutheran Church that we met for Ash Wednesday. Just pages away from the mournful Lenten hymns we sang that day is the true response to the hope that Christ instills. It is to him that we sing:
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me till I want no more;
feed me till I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain,
whence the healing stream doth flow;
let the fire and cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through.
Strong deliverer, strong deliverer,
be thou still my strength and shield;
be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside;
death of death
and hell’s destruction,
land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee;
I will ever give to thee.
(William Williams, 1717—1791)
In the quiet of that small Lutheran Church, I had found fear.
Now I realize that only in the work of Christ can I truly bid my anxious fears subside. That cross of ash gives hope because it declares the death of death.
Avi Zaffini is a freshman from Gahanna, Ohio, majoring in Political Science.