“In the midst of life we are in death.” Today as priests adorn millions of foreheads with ash, many will hear, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This reminder of death comes from God’s reprimand of Adam after the Fall. Man earned the penalty of death for his disobedience to God. After the Fall, original sin corrupted the original justice in which God created man, and everything turned upside down.
We know that the story did not end there. God turned things right-side up again. He became man to destroy death, and by his sacrifice on the Cross he paid the penalty for all man’s sins. The gates of heaven are now open, and by grace we may live, once again, near to God.
Nonetheless, sin and death remain all around us. There is true tragedy in this life, and we still struggle with the effects of sin. Jesus did not come to accomplish a historical event that wipes away every struggle, rather he gave us a new way to relate with God in a fallen world. He reoriented us toward things above. It is through being conformed to the mysteries of Christ’s life that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death into the Father’s house.
Today’s reminder of death forces us to take stock of our lives. Are we living for God? Or is he a minor concern compared to food, drink, entertainment, political gossip, and the like? The Church puts death before our eyes during Lent in order that we may not spend our lives striving after vanities. Each of us is going to die, and when that time comes, each of us will give an account of our lives. This season is a time to put things in order in preparation for death, to do penance for past sins, to break current bad habits, and to put aside even good things in order to set our hearts more completely on God. When this life has God at its center, life after death does too.
Thinking about death should not be morbid for Christians. Jesus loves us, and he wants us to dwell with him. He tells us himself, “When I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (Jn 14:3). This Lent, may empty bellies be satisfied with heavenly food, and may all who mourn for their sins be comforted by the Lord’s mercy. With rent hearts and by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, let us prepare ourselves for the hour of death that we may sing, “In peace, true peace, I will lie down and rest.”
Image: Philippe de Champagne, Still-Life with a Skull