Thought for the Day - 05/03/2014 - Canon Angela Tilby
Good morning. One of the last programmes I made when I was a producer for the BBC was about the choir of Salisbury cathedral. Angelic choristers, soaring architecture, candles in the dark.
I brought the film back and sat down with an editor to turn all the disconnected sequences into a narrative. We had filmed on Ash Wednesday –that’s today – and had loads of footage of the choir processing round the cathedral singing the Litany – a long prayer for everything and everyone to mark the beginning of Lent. As the choir sang the congregation came forward and the clergy marked each one on their foreheads with ashes saying, ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’. My film editor had no particular religious background and was expecting to make an entertaining film focused on the choristers. But he really liked this Ash Wednesday material. I think it was the truthfulness which got to him; that worship made it possible for one human being to say to another that they are going to die. ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return’. So much of the time we deny this – we have to – we have lives to get on with. But its not healthy to lose sight of death altogether. Denying death can make us greedy and grasping, and I think that is sometimes a way of trying to avoid the loss of everything which death represents. I have often been asked as a priest not to be too heavy at funerals, to celebrate the life of the deceased with lots of stories and anecdotes of the deceased – as though my job were in part to pretend the person hadn’t died at all.
Even religious funerals sometimes deny death; over emphasising resurrection hope as though grief and heartbreak were evidence of not having enough faith. The truth is that we are all very afraid of death and its finality.
This evening I will take part in the same Ash Wednesday ceremony I filmed at Salisbury all those years ago. What I have come to realise is that those solemn words: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’ need not be frightening or depressing. In fact I have come to find them strangely comforting. I think that is what my editor found as he watched the ceremony at Salisbury. The truth about death needs to be spoken, person to person. The gritty feel of the ash on your forehead, the universal, intimate naming of death from one human being to another – both being on the same journey to the same place.
Mortality is the ultimate solidarity. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
If we can accept this truth it sets us free to live, to be more grateful for the gift of life itself, to find the wisdom and grace, as the funeral service says, to use aright the time that is left to us on earth.