On Ash Wednesday, Alice and I attended a 7 o’clock morning Mass crowded with elderly worshippers. Ashes were distributed at the end of the service, and as twin lines of congregants filed up the center aisle, we joined the choir in singing Tom Conry’s lyrical hymn, “Ashes.”
We rise again from ashes, from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew
If all the world is ashes, then must our lives be true:
An offering of ashes, an offering to you.
On the forehead of each worshiper, the priest imprinted ashes with a rubber stamp bearing the image of the cross. As the ashes were conferred he prayed: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Mention of the imminence of death seemed an unnecessary reminder to most of those present.
We were in Sun City, California, a desert retirement community 80 miles east of Los Angeles. It is a place where young families are invited to come and visit grandma and grandpa but not stay, and where the first sign that greats you as you exit the freeway warned “Watch for Golf Carts.” In Sun City, anyone less than 70 years old is considered youthful.
My father relocated to this sun-bleached world thirty years ago. Now 98 years old, he had just been released from a nursing rehabilitation center, and Alice and I had come to spend two weeks with him as he regained his strength in the comfort of his own home. He was doing well. Meanwhile, with each passing day, we learned more of this community whose advertising celebrated its lawn bowling, swimming pools, and golf courses. Sun City, we were told, is a place where everyone enjoys “the rhythm of life.”
Our stay revealed a world where the night was often pierced by the sound of ambulances and fire trucks making runs to homes for unspecified health needs. Trips in the car were as often as not to a pharmacy or to a the overcrowded waiting room of a doctor’s office. En route, it was not unusual to come across sidewalks and driveways displaying all the goods of a household laid out for sale following the death of their owner.
We stayed close to home, and the Ash Wednesday early morning service was a welcome change. The procession to the altar slowly continued, Some of those shuffling forward did so with the aid or walkers or canes. The choir sang
We offer you our failures, we offer you attempts,
The gifts not fully given, the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumbling direction, give our visions wider view,
An offering of ashes, an offering to you.
Waiting for our row of worshippers to file into the center aisle, I was reminded that aging at some point loses its gracefulness. A few days earlier I had spent an hour with my father in a room where therapists were working with eighty and ninety year old patients. For many, to move their legs a few inches up or down was difficult. Some held tiny weights in their hands and tried to hold their arms straight before them. Others struggled to pull against light elastic bands. For many in the room, doing what a child could do easily was a formidable achievement.
The scene was so much better at church that morning, where most of those present were able to walk and even kneel. But I could not help but think that with each passing day the elderly see their most prized abilities slowly, irretrievably, fading away.
In the Book of Genesis, God tells Adam that life is an experience of “thorns and thistles” that will be consummated in dust. There is no escape from suffering. The Lenten Season that begins with Ash Wednesday is itself a reminder of the forty days of the privation that Jesus endured walking alone in the desert.
This solitary journey of Christ is one we all must share. As Father Karl Rahner writes, “Through his denial of all comfort, this refusal of food and drink, through the solitude and abandonment of the desert, Jesus proclaims this fact: one thing only is necessary, that I be with God…and that everything else no matter how great or beautiful, is secondary and subordinate, and must be sacrificed…to this ultimate movement of heart and spirit.”
The deepest mystery of our faith is not that Jesus rose triumphant on Easter morning, but that he did this only by first taking on the darkness of despair, suffering, and death.
As I waited to be blessed, others returned up the aisle bearing on their foreheads the memento that there is no rising with Christ, if we do not suffer with him as well. And so we sang of what our faith teaches as the ultimate triumph of life over death:
Then rise again from ashes, let healing come to pain,
Though spring has turned to winter, and sunshine turned to rain,
The rain we’ll use for growing and create the world anew. From an offering of ashes, an offering to you.