Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Into the Dark

Here's my Ash Wednesday homily. After debating the meaning of the song lyrics with Gary and revising my first draft to include the possibility of suicide, I ran the text by my two parish priests to make sure I wasn't committing any theological or pastoral blunders. To my great relief, both of them like the homily very much and don't think it's too morbid. I hope the congregation will agree!

Here are the Scripture passages, not that I talk about them a lot.

And to start off on a slightly lighter note, here's my favorite Ash Wednesday story. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor at Tor Books, converted to Catholicism a few years ago. The first year he observed Lent, he went to Ash Wednesday services before work to receive the imposition of ashes. Walking down the hallway at Tor afterwards, he was stopped by another Tor editor (who shall remain nameless), who gawked and said incredulously, "Patrick! Don't tell me those are ashes on your forehead!"

Patrick, never one to miss an opportunity for a snappy comeback, answered, "No, it was a tragic photocopier accident."

May all of you have a holy Lent!

* * *

There’s a song I’ve been hearing a lot on the radio recently. Sung by the unfortunately-named band Death Cab for Cutie, it’s a love song, called I’ll Follow You Into the Dark. (Note to blog readers: there's an audio file of the song on the band's homepage, which will play automatically if you go there.) The singer -- or, at least, the character he is singing about -- promises his lover that when she dies, he’ll follow her, no matter what happens. “If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks,” he tells her, “then I’ll follow you into the dark.”

My husband and I have been having a running argument about these lyrics. Gary thinks they’re about a suicide pact, but -- maybe because the music is quiet, thoughtful, and acoustic -- I’ve never heard them that way. I think the words are a statement of faith, an expression of belief that love survives death. The singer tells us that he was driven away from Catholic school by a nun who taught that “fear is the heart of love.” Rejecting that idea, he sings instead about love that conquers fear, and pledges his devotion to the one he loves.

I thought of this song a few weeks ago, when I read the news story, one many of you probably also saw, about the 5,000 year old skeletons found locked in an embrace in Italy. Although one might see a Romeo-and-Juliet style-suicide pact here, too, the archaeologists who discovered the skeletons were deeply moved by the obvious love between these two ancient people. Anthropologist Luca Bondioli says that there are “other prehistoric burials in which the dead hold hands or have other contact.” These discoveries, according to Bondioli, prove that people’s relationships with each other, and with death, haven’t changed that much in the past five millenia. For all that time, we’ve been vowing to follow our loved ones into the dark.

Today, Ash Wednesday, begins the forty days of Lent. We mark Ash Wednesday, and are marked by it, in a somber reminder of our own mortality: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We know that Lent will end with the glorious sunrise of Easter, when love will conquer death forever, when our “light shall break forth like the dawn,” and our “gloom be like the noonday.” But we also know that the road to Easter leads through deep shadow, the utter darkness and desolation of Good Friday. There is no resurrection without death. On Ash Wednesday, we promise to follow Jesus -- whom we love, and who loves us -- into the dark. Lent is the annual process of preparing for his death, and for our own.

That process requires us to reorder our priorities; to decide what is most important to us; to discern where our hearts, and our treasures, truly lie. Whatever Lenten disciplines we embrace during these forty days, they should heighten our love of life and of the people in our lives. That is, I think, the point of Jesus’ repeated warnings against public display of good works in the Gospel. What we do during Lent should be done not to impress strangers, but to honor God, the source of everything we have, and our ultimate promise that love will indeed conquer death.

Dying people rarely care what strangers think of them: they face the urgent task of completing unfinished business while they still can. Everything non-essential falls away. Lent reminds us that everyone is dying. These forty days invite us to ponder what is truly essential, and what isn’t. I’ve read that there are “five last things” that dying people need to hear, and to say:

“Forgive me."

"I forgive you."

"Thank you."

"I love you."


Saying those things now, or at least the first four of them, might be an appropriate Lenten discipline for all of us.

If loving one another even unto death has been a human trait for the last five thousand years, so has fear of the dark. Very few people face sudden darkness, much less dying, without being afraid. We fear what we don’t know, and we fear the loss of what we do know. But ours is a theology that is much more about love than about fear. Our faith promises that when we are afraid, we will be comforted. The God we worship and serve, the God who took human form to love and serve and save us, will follow us into the dark.

Most of you know that I volunteer as a hospital chaplain. Several years ago, I spoke to a patient whose fear had literally landed him in the emergency room. He was at the hospital to rule out a heart attack, but he told me that his chest pain and shortness of breath were probably caused by an anxiety disorder. One of the things that got him through his panic attacks, he said, was the memory of a profound encounter with God he’d had when he was a little boy.

When he was eight or so, he’d been playing softball. Running across the field, he had a vision. It only lasted a few seconds, but he had never forgotten it. “I was running to first base,” he said, “and suddenly everything was transformed. I felt love radiating from the grass, the trees, the sky, the sun: everything was love. And I felt God running with me, just behind my right shoulder. I was as certain of God’s presence as I am of yours right now.

“But then something happened, and there was a gaping hole in front of me: a rectangle, like a grave. It was deep and dark, and I was afraid of it. But I stood on the edge and looked down into it, and I felt that same love blasting up at me from the darkness. If the love had been wind, it would have knocked me off my feet. And I heard God’s voice, just behind my right shoulder, saying, ‘Don’t be afraid of the darkness. There’s love there, too.’”

As we follow Jesus into the darkness of Lent -- as we face his death and our own -- let us remember that he never asks us to go anywhere he has not gone himself. No matter how dark some of the places may be where Jesus has gone, we can be secure in our faith that there is love there, too: the love that will transform the darkness of Lent into the light of Easter, revealing the empty tomb.



  1. Oh, good. I was going to use the "tragic photocopier accident" anecdote today, but now I can just reference you.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Susan. It's lovely.

  3. Susan you must be reading my mind - I have a post half written about this very song, and greatly appreciate your take on it.

  4. Nitpick: I didn't "convert to Catholicism," I was confirmed in the church I was raised in. And I'm not really in charity with the condition of the church as an institution.

  5. My apologies for the inaccuracy, Patrick! And as you well know, I'm not in complete charity with the idea of the church as an institution either, given some of my institutional dealings with it.

    The tragic-photocopier-accident story is still priceless, however.

  6. Lovely homily, Susan! My day started with Morning Prayer and I have chapters to read tonight. Thus I'm missing the service tonight. So Thank You for putting a wonderful sermon on my computer screen. God reaches us however he can. (g)


  7. The band's name comes from a song title by "The Bonzo Dog Band" which was featured in the Beatles movie Magical Mystery Tour.

    I like Death Cab's music a lot, but given some of the stanzas in the song I think that the song's meaning is somewhere between your and Gary's views and that your assessment that the musical tone has influenced your interpretation is spot on.

    I often think about Smiths songs when making myself remember that the melody and the meaning may be greatly out of synch with one another.

    Come to think of it, that can apply to religions and their institutions as well.

  8. Speaking of people who are dying, I've got several patients who are hanging by a limb these days. I'm going to make a point of taking your suggestion and telling them I love them...


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