The Mark of Death

Ash Wednesday – February 18, 2015


  Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 10.39.36 AMThe Mark of Death

 A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.

We have gathered together, once again, to have our foreheads smudged with ashes and to be reminded that we are going to return to dust… to be reminded that we are going to die. This is not news but somehow in this liturgical act of being marked with the sign of death, we are granted entrée into a deeper experience of Lent. This mark is profound … and not to everyone’s liking. In the busyness of our lives we may not want to be reminded that one day we will not be “here” experiencing life as we now know it. The mark of death is about the large trajectory from cradle to grave and the promise that lies beyond. The mark of death is also about little deaths that need to occur for the fuller experience of this life… little deaths of “letting go” …of fear in its many forms… such as fear of failure… or fear of being inadequate … or little deaths of letting go of impatience, judgementalism, envy, blame, negativity, busyness… we each have our own list. Encountering death is about welcoming fuller life. The promise of Easter is about new life beyond this life. The promise of Easter is also about new life even as we continue on our earthly sojourn. There are little deaths that need to happen… to make room for new life waiting to be born. And so we receive our ashes and then head into the desert of our Lenten experience.

Desert spirituality is the tone of this season that parallels Jesus’ 40 days of wandering in the wilderness… after his baptism, and before the actual start of his ministry.   Jesus was tempted in the desert but he did not succumb. The temptations did not break him. They strengthened his clarity. Many native cultures have traditions of “vision quests” where young boys, in particular, are sent out into the wilderness, on their own, for days and nights at a time as part of their initiation into adulthood. It is assumed that, in their struggle to stay alive… in their encounter with fears of being alone…of feeling vulnerable, and of not knowing what might be lurking ahead, … it is assumed that living into these struggles promotes the inner work that will transform a child into an adult. A break from the familiarity of home, and family, and familiar routines promotes this movement to a new place in life.

Alan Jones, retired Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, has written a book on the subject of getting down to the essential truths of our lives… about the importance of diving deeply and living more brightly. To glean these deep inner truths we need to be ever more awake… seeking to unclutter the mind and heart…to be more attentive and alive, even as we face death. In his book “Living the Truth” [1]   Jones says, “It is only by staying awake, being present, that we come to know what really matters.”[2]   In his book Jones shares a story of a friend of his who is a Vietnam vet:

He does not often talk about his experiences of combat all those years ago and it is hard to imagine this successful businessman flying into the uncertainties and dangers of war. But at a restaurant in Santa Fe he and the waiter discovered that they both had served in Vietnam and shared similar experiences. Once you got into the battle zone, uniforms were set aside and new rules applied. Survival was the name of the game and when it was your turn to get out of that particular inferno you were apt to point out to those who were replacing you (as you passed by them at the airport) that not all of them would be returning. The waiter loved life and he said to my friend, “I just can’t explain what this time in Vietnam did to me. As I see it – the deal is this. You wake up! You’re alive! You win!” When my friend told me the story I couldn’t help remembering that one of the monks who taught me told me about prayer. Prayer is a daily placing oneself on the threshold of death. It helps us anticipate and participate in our dying, and this is good news because it also means we participate in the new life of the Spirit. The deal is this. You wake up! You’re alive! You win![3]

When faced with new and challenging landscapes “the familiar” gets stripped away. Jones writes that in such landscapes we come to know that: “We are both more and less: more, because we are deeper and lovelier than we know; less, because we often inflate ourselves by power, money, or arrogance to compensate for our feared insignificance.”[4] We are, indeed, complicated creatures. As layers of our tightly held illusions about ourselves, and even of our conceptions of God, fall away, layer by layer, our true selves emerge and our gifts stand out more vividly like precious gems that dwell at the core of our being.

The Greek word for truth, aletheia, suggests a revelation or an uncovering. “In Greek mythology Lethe was the river of forgetfulness. To forget was lethal! To remember accurately was life bearing. Truth-telling, therefore, in the sense of personal integrity, has something to do with remembering, with waking up, with being fully aware.”[5] Alan Jones writes:

If we are truly aware, we will have glimpsed some terrible truths: that life is often hard, that we are going to die, that we are not in control. It is at that point of recognition that we have a choice. Far from being depressing, such knowledge of our frailty can be the occasion of liberation, even hilarity.   Amazement and gratitude can put us in touch with purposes and possibilities larger than ourselves. It comes as a relief not to find ourselves at the center of the universe.[6]

All this is simply to say that as we cross the threshold of Lent we may choose to take on a desert spirituality of new landscapes, of discovery, of trials, a spirituality of staring into the question marks of our existence and of our faith. It would mean slowing down and listening, opening up and, and letting this holy awareness work on and in us as the potter works and forms wet clay… inviting us to surrender to the stripped down truths of our lives… allowing true forms to emerges… so that when it is time to stand at the foot of the cross on Good Friday we can bear to look into the eyes of Jesus as he lives out his last moments in suffering… moments that are saturated with love. In that moment may we to know a connection with Christ that has never felt more real. Death will descend, but come Sunday the resurrection will make things new… all over again… because in Christ, who was from the beginning, and who will be forever, is the very definition of new creation… and in Christ we are invited to live the best of the best, even as we live into our own deaths.

I pray…

for each and every one of us…

that the Lenten journey is gifted with holy challenges, little deaths, and new awakenings…

that our journey with Christ and into Christ may be taken to new levels…

I pray that as we make this journey, step-by-step, we discover, ever more strikingly…

how belovedand how calledwe already are

and that at the end of this journey and quest…

we may celebrate the victory of life over death that is the Resurrection…



Isaiah 56:1-12; Psalm 103; 2Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

[1] Alan Jones, Living the Truth, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000.

[2] Ibid. pg. 15.`

[3] Ibid. pg. 42.

[4] Ibid. pg. 23.

[5] Ibid. pg. 115.

[6] Ibid.