God is not the author of death.


Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2020


In 1960 Joy Davidman, the wife of C. S. Lewis, died of bone cancer at a relatively young age. If you want to know more about their story, I heartily recommend to you the film The Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger. In any event, Lewis, who was in my opinion one of the greatest apologists for Christianity ever, was devastated by Joy’s death. Even as a man of great faith, the pain of losing the woman that he loved was overwhelming for him. He later wrote a book about his experience of her death. But on Joy’s tombstone, Lewis had this epitaph written:


Here the whole world (stars, water, air,

And field, and forest, as they were

Reflected in a single mind)

Like cast off clothes was left behind

In ashes, yet with hopes that she,

Re-born from holy poverty,

In lenten lands, hereafter may

Resume them on her Easter Day.


You know, it is a shame that poetry isn’t as popular as it once was with the masses, because poems have the power to convey so much with so few words. This little poem says so much about Lewis’s faith, the Christian faith, and I think it might even help us appreciate what we are doing here today a little deeper.


Here the whole world like cast off clothes was left behind in ashes.


It’s as if the tombstone wants to say: This pile of ashes that you are looking at….this was once someone’s whole world. Joy’s world was experienced and Joy’s life was lived in that pile of ashes. This stuff that is just laying about here, that so many pass by and take no notice of, this dirt beneath the ground here, this was once a person. A whole life was lived in these ashes that lie about like someone’s cast off clothes. The image of a pile of cast-off clothes sticks with me.


It reminds me of when I was on sabbatical over the summer, because one afternoon I ventured down into the catacombs of Paris. The Paris catacombs were an old stone quarry, but in about 1780 the city started clearing out its old and somewhat dangerous cemeteries and moved all the human remains to these underground chambers. There are about six million bodies down there. Bone after bone after bone stacked on top of each other in a seemingly endless cavern. Each one slowly turning to dust. I had to keep reminding myself as I walked through there, that each and every one of these skulls was a life. A person with hopes and dreams and fears and loves. Each one of these was really like a whole world. And here they were, an indistinguishable heap of bones lying around waiting to be redeemed.


And seeing all those bones, it gave me pause to think to myself: the things that I spend so much time worrying about and fussing over, the things that grip my emotions on a daily basis, when my bones are added to the pile, will I care about them anymore? Do any of these people care what others think of them now? Are any of these people worried about their clothes or their possessions? Are any of them consumed by politics? A few years after these bones were moved here France saw one of the bloodiest, nastiest political upheavals in the history of Europe, but it didn’t matter to these folks. They never saw it.


And near the end of the tunnel there stands a little sign that reads in Latin and French: Deus mortem non fecit, Dieu n’est pas l’auteur de la morte. God is not the author of death. A reminder that we were designed to be so much more than a heap of bones or a pile of ashes. Each one of us was created to be a whole, unique little world in God’s good universe. God wants more for us than this: to be left behind like cast off clothes.


How does one respond to such a sight? Well, if the Christian faith was “gather ye rosebuds while ye may for tomorrow we’ll be dying,” then willingly giving up pleasures or denying ourselves anything would truly make no sense. If dust and ashes is where it all ends, then Lent would have it backwards: we would remind ourselves of our morality, then go and party. But that is not what Christians do. Our faith is a bit more complicated. Every year we remind ourselves that we are ashes and then spend a season letting go of things and pushing some things to the side. Or we might even work harder at some things.


Why? Why do we observe Lent this way? Well it’s because Lent isn’t a self-help or self-improvement scheme.


You are probably not going to be a much better person 40 days from now. You are sinners now. You will still be sinners come Easter Sunday. Observing Lent is not going to change that.


A little smudge of palm ash on your forehead and giving up chocolate for 40 days is not going to make everything you did in your twenties just disappear.


Giving up meat on Fridays is not going to make a drastic difference in your health or your weight. Putting a few extra dollars in the Good Friday offering is not going to solve the crisis in the Middle East.


So why bother with any of this? Why should we fast if it isn’t going to help us loose weight? Why should we give alms if it isn’t going to solve the problems of poverty and hunger? Why should we pray more if we aren’t sure that it is going to make God change his mind?


We do it, because we are going to die.


Let that sink in a minute.


You may not like to hear me say that. You may think that I am being morbid. But I’m not really. I am stating a very plain and irrefutable fact: each and every one of us in this room is going to die. I can tell you that with 100% certainty.


I cannot tell you when it will happen. I cannot tell you where it will happen. But it will happen. Maybe, hopefully, it will be a long time from now. But, it might be on your way home.


That is a hard fact for us to swallow. We don’t like it.


So we try and cover it up and mask it, but we need to face it. Our faith tells us we must face it. Why? Because we believe that death is not the end. And when the day comes for my bones to be added to the pile, what will I care about? Well I imagine that on that day the only thing I will care about is my relationship with my creator that wants more for me than just to end up a pile of ashes. The relationship I have with the God who wants more for me than death will matter more than anything else on earth. So anything that might be coming between me and that creator, will need to take a back seat.


That is why we observe Lent the way we do. We recognize in life that sometimes things in life start to come between us and God. In imperceptible and sometimes insidious ways. Trivial things, good things, bad things…there is so much stuff in our lives that pushes us further and further away from God, so in Lent, we take the time and push them out of the way, and focus on that relationship. Because in the end, that is all that will matter for us. Lent is about growing closer to God. That is it. We humble ourselves, we give up things, we fast, give alms, and pray, to draw ourselves closer to the God that is not the author of death. Christians believe that we will be ashes for a season, we acknowledge that our bones will some day rest beneath the earth, but we also live with the hope that that is not where our God leaves us.

That is why the epitaph on Joy Davidman’s tomb ends the way it does:


Here the whole world…

Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,

In lenten lands, hereafter may

Resume them on her Easter Day.