One of the most sacred times in my life as a college chaplain is during our Ash Wednesday service. There is something so profoundly difficult yet beautiful in the act of imposing ashes on the foreheads of my students and proclaiming, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It is a day when I confront the realities of life — that these young, vibrant, 20-year-old children will one day die, just like I will die, just as generations of people have died before. It is a fact that we cannot deny or ignore on Ash Wednesday. This day is the day we look death in the eye and say that we will meet one day, but while we’re alive we will embrace to waves of emotions that life offers.
Last Ash Wednesday wasn’t any different than the ones of the past on campus. I honestly can’t remember what the weather was like. I don’t remember what meetings were sprinkled throughout worship services and ashes-to-go stations. But what I do remember was the heavy nature of the day.
Telling young people that they will die is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot to claim it. It takes even more to look at lively young adults and bring them this news. What made this year more difficult than the previous years was the fact that the three students had recently died in a period of months. Three members of our community were gone, and the community dynamics had shifted. We had faced death a lot that year and so when Ash Wednesday came around, we knew would look at death once more.
But that year, it was a defiant look at death. We knew the words. We knew the liturgy. We knew the pain of what death meant. But we also knew that while we will die, we were alive today. We stood tall. We stood together. And we boldly walked into that reminder that Ash Wednesday offered.
There was a shift in our nature. There was a change in the air. My students who wrestled with the emotional toll of death that previous year, had a new appreciation for Ash Wednesday. It was as if they stood there and heard the familiar words and stared death down and laughed. Knowing that while they will die one day, they would live today. And in so doing they embraced the great joy and wonder of life more so than ever before.
Watching this defiant nature, and seeing how they engaged with Ash Wednesday’s reminder, brought a sense of peace to our community. We were able to hold this news and the beauty of life together. We lived into the Ash Wednesday benediction, “May the memory of your incompleteness awaken you to all the wonders, joys, sorrows, and pain of life.”
If that previous year taught us one thing, it was that while college students seem invincible, death will come to them too. But that also reminded us to live into the wonders and joys of our lives. We as a community committed to taking risks, supporting one another, to loving our neighbors a little more. We learned to embrace the fragility of our lives while reveling in the joys of life. And in that, we knew more fully what it means to live — to embrace joys and sorrows for they both offer us ways to live into all that God dreamed humanity can be.