“Jesus is the answer!” So proclaims numerous road signs, Facebook posts, and bumper stickers. For those posting such things, it is an expression of their faith, of their confidence in Jesus. It a touchstone of peace and happiness for them and perhaps also for many who see it–but not for everyone. To a great many others, this statement provokes rather a sense of bewilderment, and begs a follow up question: “If Jesus is the answer, then what is the question?”
This thought brings to my lips a smile as I recall the analogous situation in Douglas Adams’ humorous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a planet-sized super computer named “Deep Thought” was constructed and directed to come up with “the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything”. The program ran for millions of years, and finally returned an answer: “42”. Unfortunately neither the Deep Thought nor his designers knew what the ultimate question happened to be. The pan-dimensional beings seeking this answer were then forced to construct another planet-sized super computer to figure out the ultimate question.
Ash Wednesday is a Christian celebration that reminds us of the question for which Jesus is the answer. Or, more accurately, we are reminded of the problem for which Jesus is the solution; That is, the problem of death:
“Remember, o man, dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return.”
Thus intones the priest in many a ceremony as ashes are imposed upon the foreheads of penitent Christians, these words echoing God’s curse in Genesis 3, pronounced upon humankind as punishment for sin.
Death is literally the bane of our existence. It destroys all that we hold dear. Try as we might to banish it from our thoughts, death catches us all. We recoil from it as we simultaneously yearn for permanence and significance. The idea of the extinction of our consciousness into an eternal nothing is difficult for us to fully grasp, for “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Death is universal. We all die, because of our sin. Death is universal because sin is universal.
Fortunately, Ash Wednesday is merely the prelude to Easter. Whereas Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, in essence saying, “Ye are dead”, Easter tells us: “Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
The good news of Christianity is that God has set eternity in our hearts for a reason. It isn’t a dreadful taunt, or a meaningless musing. Jesus, the Christ, has died our death, in order that we might live his life. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
As the old Easter canticle proclaims:
“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”
(This comes from 1 Corinthians 15)
Jesus’ resurrection from death foretells our own liberation from it, and not only in the future, in an eternity after physical death. We may be liberated from its shadow, and its dread, and its power over us even in this life.
In the light of this good news, St Paul exults in his first letter to the Corinthians: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
As John Donne, the 16th century poet we recently profiled, elaborated so eloquently:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.