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Life in Death

Ash Wednesday: 5th March, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Joel 2:12-18; Ps 51; 2 Cor. 5:20 - 6:2; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18

I don't think we cope with death as well today as we have done in the past. Popular Western Culture seems to be obsessed with staying young; just look at the chemist shelves and TV advertising, not to mention the plastic faces of Hollywood's rich and famous. Mortality, ageing and human frailty are not things popular culture encourages us to dwell on. They are almost taboo.

Recently I was talking with a friend; a colleague of hers walked past us and said "see you tomorrow." My friend replied, "God willing." She might as well have said "drop dead." The colleague was mortified and clearly embarrassed at the response; "I hope not" was the reply. But isn't that the truth. Each day, each breath of life, is a blessing from God. We are frail; like the grass, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Here today and gone tomorrow. But death in our society has largely become encapsulated in cinematic entertainment, or boxed into a news item from Syria or South Sudan. Our own death, the death of loved ones, has become an unspeakable thing. It must be kept from our thoughts at all costs.

Ash Wednesday runs counter to this repressive spirit of our age. Today is a day of death; it is the beginning of 40 days of death, death to self, preparation for the memorial of our Lord's death. The ancient traditions we observe today encourage us to stare mortality in the face, and to find in it life, even eternal life. George Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet and Anglican priest, knew this truth intimately. He is described as "a pivotal figure: enormously popular, deeply and broadly influential, and arguably the most skillful and important British devotional lyricist" (Link here) and yet ask most people you pass on the street who he is and you would get a blank face.

Herbert's poem "Mortification" is a beautifully crafted reflection on the reality of death in life, and life in death. He sees death in the swaddled new-born child, death in the energetic toddler, death in the zestful youth full of "mirth and breath" as well as the established middle-aged person with their "house and home". Herbert's meditation points to the fact that death is present throughout life, and then in the final stanza the poet prays: "Yet, Lord, instruct us so to die, that all these dyings may be LIFE in DEATH." Life is made up of little deaths, and death itself contains life. The veil between life and death is much thinner than twenty-first century secularism would admit. Allow me to read the whole poem to you as an Ash Wednesday prayer reflection.

"Mortification" by George Herbert (George Herbert: The Complete English Works. London: David Campbell, 1995, pp. 95-6)

How soon doth man decay!
When clothes are taken from a chest of sweets
To swaddle infants, whose young breath
Scarce knows the way;
Those clouts are little winding-sheets,
Which do consign and send them unto Death.

When boyes go first to bed,
They step into their voluntarie graves;
Sleep binds them fast; onely their breath
Makes them not dead:
Successive nights, like rolling waves,
Convey them quickly who are bound for Death.

When Youth is frank and free,
And calls for musick, while his veins do swell,
All day exchanging mirth and breath
In companie,
That musick summons to the knell
Which shall befriend him at the house of Death.

When man grows staid and wise,
Getting a house and home, where he may move
Within the circle of his breath,
Schooling his eyes,
That dumbe inclosure maketh love
Unto the coffin, that attends his death.

When Age grows low and weak,
Marking his grave, and thawing ev'ry year,
Till all do melt and drown his breath
When he would speak,
A chair or litter shows the biere
Which shall convey him to the house of Death.

Man, ere he is aware,
Hath put together a solemnitie,
And drest his hearse, while he has breath
As yet to spare;
Yet, Lord, instruct us so to die,
That all these dyings may be LIFE in DEATH.

Ash Wednesday is about death, and it is also about life. It is a day for us to reflect on our own mortality: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." And it is a day to find life in death; eternal life beyond our own feeble frame.

Earlier today, after the 7.15am Mass and Imposition of Ashes, a small St Peter's team took "Ashes to Go" to the steps of Parliament station. It was a crazy idea that one of the parishioners suggested a few weeks ago, after having seen it in action in Canada. So, we decided to give it a go. Fr Samuel, Melissa Clark, Di Clark and I headed off, ashes and fliers in hand, and positioned ourselves in the midst of the morning rush. "Today is Ash Wednesday. If you would like a blessing you are most welcome." The first few blank faces had me thinking that we would be standing like lemons for the next hour. But then the most amazing thing happened; people stopped and took up our offer. Lots of people. We even had people queuing up for a blessing on several occasions. I lost count, but over the hour would have placed ashes on the foreheads of about 100 people.

This was certainly Herbert's life in death. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." In the midst of the busy rush to work, people stopped and took the time to reflect on their mortality.

Lord, instruct us so to die, that all these dyings may be LIFE in DEATH.


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