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Ash Wednesday Homily

Today is the day that Christians talk about death. Today we talk about mortality in a way that is not abstract, but head-on, and direct. It is the day when we say, truly, for real and for certain you will die. Today we acknowledge death as a reality of our condition as a human. When we say aloud that death is the one fact of our existence that humans have not been able to overcome on our own. Today is the day to acknowledge our fragility, our weakness, and the painful reality, that one day our bodies will fail, and we will return to the ash and the dust.


I wonder if you remember the first time you experienced death?


The first death I experienced was my grandmother, Marie Akers Middlebrooks. She died in 2011 when I was in middle school. This time of my life is blurry. I am not sure I fully understood death, what was important during the time, or even what was happening. My grandmother and I had a wonderful relationship. She was a great woman who was respected as a schoolteacher, involved in First Baptist Church Selma as a Sunday School teacher, served on the town council, and was beloved by her community.


But there is one moment in that time that I remember more clearly than all the others. When we got into the car to go from the funeral to the committal, the church bells at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church around the corner played. And in that moment, my mother, who was grieving, had the driver roll down the windows, to listen to the small town of Selma, Alabama, glow in the sound of bells for my grandmother. An Episcopal friend, and fellow schoolteacher, of my Baptist family, went to their bell tower just around the corner to proclaim that this was not the end. That in a moment of deep pain, there was something to be joyfully proclaimed.


And since that moment it was engrained in me, that Christians view death differently.  In our Ash Wednesday liturgy, we pray, “By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord, Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.”


We know death. We know how it hurts, how it leaves a hole, how it leaves things unfinished, how sometimes it comes as a relief to suffering, and other times it makes more suffering than we could imagine; and yet because of the death of Christ, we know that it does not have the last word.


You will die, but because of Jesus, you will rise with the saints. And for this reason, we are drawn to repent today and during Lent. Today is a day to reflect on how much time we have squandered to sin, on the fact that we do not always seek to grow closer and closer to the one that rescued us from this mortal state, that we do not always listen to the church bells, or the voice, or the movement of the Spirit proclaiming that sin and death have no victory. And rather than wallowing in the guilt of sin, this day is a day to recognize the mercy of God. Today is a day to live in confidence, that though we may return to ashes and dust, we can be reconciled to the one that formed us from dust in the beginning.


So today we will wear death. We will proclaim to the world that we are mortal, but also that death has no victory. Amen.

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