By Duy Nguyen, Ministry Assistant for Youth and Outreach
Episcopal Service Corps Fellow 2018-19
Last week, I observed my first Ash Wednesday as a staff member of a church, so I had a unique vantage point from which to observe one of my favorite days in the Church calendar. There were three services – one in the morning, one at noon, and one in the evening. Also in the afternoon, at the top of each hour, the clergy lead the Litany of Penitence and distributed ashes. Even outside of these services and hourly times of prayer and imposition, people would come by to inquire about ashes. It was fascinating to observe, and it made me think about what Ash Wednesday means to me.
Growing up as an Evangelical, there weren’t that many holy days outside of Christmas and Easter. So you could only imagine how exciting it was for me when, upon converting to Catholicism, I encountered Ash Wednesday. I love the solemnity of the day, the somber mood that induces introspection. Most of all, I love the publicity of the ash imposed on our foreheads. After all, I love drama, and it’s difficult to think of something more dramatic than thousands of New Yorkers walking around the city with ash on their heads which symbolizes repentance and signals their recognition of the reality of death.
I confronted this reality twice. My first time was at eight years of age in Vietnam. My paternal grandfather had just passed and being a young child I didn’t have a clear recollection nor did I feel much of anything. But I do remember the funeral. I remember the Buddhist monks chanting their mantras and the musicians in the background blowing their horns and playing an assortment of traditional instruments. This was the traditional Vietnamese funeral, as loud as it was mournful. I encountered this reality many years later as a young adult in the US. Unexpectedly, my maternal grandmother passed away. I remember weeping alongside my mother at my grandmother’s bedside, and I remember weeping again at the funeral. My mother’s side was Evangelical, so my grandmother’s funeral lacked much of the fanfare found at my grandfather’s. It was somber and the focus of the funeral was not about ensuring safe passage of the spirit into the next realm, which was found in most traditional Vietnamese funerals. Instead, the funeral was half about her life, and half a call for her unbelieving children to accept Jesus into their hearts.
As different as they were from each other, both funerals were marked with a sense of finality. No matter how long the mantras were chanted at my grandfather’s funeral, or how many assurances of salvation were spoken at my grandmother’s, the reality is we won’t see them again. This finality is what prevents people in our society from ignoring the reality of death. We try all we can to be thinner, stronger, and younger. We pretend as we walk or drive to work every day that things will remain the same. In our imagination, our world and the people in it will always be there. Yet at the back of our minds we know that death is real, and that try as we may the arrow of time will always point toward it. And as hard as we may imagine otherwise, we know that our world and the people in it will one day disappear.
Perhaps this is why Ash Wednesday is so popular. It forces us to confront this reality head on and to be reminded that we are from dust, and to dust we will return. But Ash Wednesday is not a standalone holy day. It inaugurates the Lenten season which finds its climax on Easter morning, marking the rising of our Lord and his victory over death. In the resurrected Christ, we find a source of incredible hope that life continues on; death, final though it may feel, is only the beginning to something greater. Moreover, as we gather together each Sunday to celebrate this resurrected Christ, we are also reminded that we don’t have to face the reality of death alone. Troubled as I was with the Evangelical pastors who tried to convert my relatives at my grandmother’s funeral, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that the small Vietnamese Christian community came to our aid at that vulnerable moment. They grieved with us and comforted us with both their presence and material goods. Their presence at the funeral helped me realize that Jesus doesn’t just promise his comfort in the afterlife. Through the Church, the comfort and hope of God was made available to us right there, in the midst of our grief. And the crushing weight of death—slowly—became easier to bear.