‘We ain’t ashes’: thoughts on Ash Wednesday

{Spoiler Alert – this post contains spoilers for The Walking Dead, Season 5, Episode 6, Consumed}

In a deserted office building overlooking a burned out Atlanta, after escaping human and undead threats alike in an attempt to locate one of their group, Carol Peletier and Daryl Dixon talk about how they’ve changed since the world fell apart. Actors Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus play these parts with such authenticity and woundedness. Their performances couple together vulnerability and strength in ways that are True with a capital “T”. It’s  no wonder that they are the most beloved of the TWD characters.

Carol and Daryl are survivors – and not just of the zombie apocalypse. As they talk between bites of stale vending machine snacks, Carol recounts the cycle of violence that trapped and isolated she and her daughter in their former life. Daryl listens. The scars on his back tell us he understands. “Who I was with him…” Carol confesses, “She got burned away…And at the prison I got to be who I always thought I should be, thought I should’ve been. And then she got burned away. Everything now just…consumes you.”

Daryl looks at her for only a moment, then offers, “Hey…we ain’t ashes.”

His words caught me off guard. “What do you mean, ‘We ain’t ashes?'”

See, I know a lot about ashes.

Tomorrow, I’ll take the dried, brittle palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration and burn them. Come Wednesday, Ash Wednesday in the liturgical year, at noon I’ll stand on the corner outside the church and at night I’ll stand in the sanctuary by candlelight, dipping my thumb into those ashes, smudging a delicate cross on the forehead of whomever stands before me. Face to face, close enough to feel each other’s breath, when I mark each person with the ash, I won’t look them in the eye and say, “We ain’t ashes,” but rather, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Daryl’s words appear opposed to what I will say. Yes, at first, they seem different. What’s really different is the context.

We live in a world where people avoid death, and anything, really, that hints at how fragile our human existence is. We insulate ourselves with miracle headlines promising perpetual youth. We use plastic surgery and hair dye. Viagra. We no longer wash the bodies of our loved ones after they’ve died in the same way mommas wash their newborn babies. No. We leave that to the professionals, gloved and gowned and paid to deal with death daily.

I know a lot about ashes – as a pastor, I get to wade in deep with people when firestorms lay waste to their lives. Freak accidents, debilitating illnesses, broken promises. Terminal diagnoses. Suffering of all kinds. Unexpected and anticipated deaths. Our best intentions gone awry. Our worst intentions acted upon. Life catches fire so easily. We get scorched. We get singed.  Who we are gets burned away. Things happen, each and every day, that remind us we are not as invincible, as young, or as perpetually happy as our Pinterest perfect profiles would suggest. And yet, we avoid death. In our context, we pretend like it’s not there, like we’re all not going to die someday. Maybe if we stopped pretending, we’d find the beauty that’s buried in the ashes, what gets refined in the fire, strengthened instead of destroyed.

In the context of The Walking Dead world, death cannot be avoided. They’re immersed in it daily. They see it. They smell it. They fear it. They fight it. Death is all around.

And so, when Daryl says to Carol, “We ain’t ashes,” what he’s really saying is, “We ain’t dead yet, don’t act like you are. You will be one day – but you’re not now. So live. Live fully in this life while you still have it.” And that is the essence of this Wednesday’s ritual reminder, just from a different perspective, a different context. When I say to folks this Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” I’m really saying, “You aren’t dead yet, but you will be one day. So don’t act like you won’t be – instead, live. Live fully in this life while you still have it.”  It’s not the meaning that’s different. It’s the context in which it’s cast.

Carl Jung once wrote, “Life is a luminous pause between two mysteries that are yet one.” Both Daryl’s affirmation and the one I’ll whisper to folks on Ash Wednesday point to the luminous pause that this life is. This precious life that’s filled with love and loss, joy and heartache, hope and sorrow and everything in between: it’s all the luminous pause.

Maybe the luminosity shines brightest when we realize that out of ashes, phoenixes rise.

So, you – whoever you are – just remember that. Out of ashes, you will rise, too.

 

Blessings y’all…..

PopCulturePreacher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s