In what may already have become the iconic image of our latest mass shooting, a woman with a cross of ashes on her forehead embraces and seeks to console another woman at the scene of the shooting. At some point earlier in the day, someone had traced that cross on her forehead, perhaps saying “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Little did she know that she would soon be reminded of our solidarity in death in a more terrible and horrifying way.
In some sense, death is natural for biological organisms like us. Physical corruption and eventual cessation of cellular life seems to be part of the package that comes with embodiment. And the tracing the ashes on our foreheads reminds us of this.
But scripture also says that death entered the world through sin (Romans 5:12). Exactly how this sin-death relates to natural biological death is, I think, mysterious. But when someone pumps bullets into the bodies of healthy young people, we can have no doubt that we are being confronted with sin-death, for which the only final remedy is, as the Roman Ash Wednesday liturgy puts it, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (though certainly there are measures short of conversion that might be taken to make the effects of sin less deadly).
Every Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our mortality and of our sin, and of the mysterious connection between them. But yesterday we were reminded in a particularly horrific way of the covenant that we have made with dust, the promise that our race has made to serve death, and the imperative to turn from the covenant of sin and death and to embrace the covenant of love and life that is offered to us in Jesus Christ. Like the women in the picture, we who are marked with mortality cling to one another, and we cling to the hope that even the ashes of death can be washed away by the blood and water that flows from the side of Christ.