Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 6, 2008

2008.02.06 “A Walk Through the Catacombs” Ash Wednesday

Central United Methodist Church

“A Walk Through the Catacombs”

Ash Wednesday

February 6th, 2008

       A year ago January, on a family trip to Paris, my 24 year-old son Chris decided he wanted to see the Catacombs of Paris. Since I had seen them before, I offered to accompany him, while the women went shopping.  (Tells you something, I guess, about how much I like shopping.)

        The Catacombs of Paris are part of 186 miles of limestone quarries and caverns which underlie Paris. In the late 18th century, the Les Halles district in the middle of the city was suffering from disease, and a larger than usual infestation of rats, due to contamination caused by improper burials and mass graves in cemeteries.  It was decided to discreetly remove the bones and place them in the underground abandoned quarries.

So from 1785 to 1786, over 15 months, millions of bones were transported from the unsanitary city cemetery to the catacombs. It was a monumental project, transporting the bones in huge carts at night across the city.

When you go there, you descend a spiral staircase, several hundred feet, to an underground passage. After about 15 minutes of walking without seeing anyone, my son Chris, who is a Marine, said, “Dad, when you were here before, were there people?  This is starting to feel like an Indiana Jones movie.” 

Finally, you come to a doorway:  Above the door are these words (in French): “Stop! This is the empire of death.”  Kinda gets your attention.

Then, as you walk, there they are, a bone collection of 5 to 6 million people.  There are huge piles of bones, mostly skulls and thighbones, arranged as crosses, as faces and in other different configurations.  I guess even gravediggers have to fight boredom.

It is sobering, to stop and think that for every skull, for every two thighbones, there existed a living, breathing person.  And now there they are, gaped at by those with our skin still on.

Oh, and by the way, at the end of the tour, as you exit, they search your bag to make sure you take no souvenirs.  And then there would be that nasty little thing of security and customs, anyway.

We Americans take death seriously.  So seriously, in fact, we don’t even want to think about it. As I told Chris, you would never see such a thing in America.  Because we don’t want to think about our mortality, our death; we find it morbid and it makes us sad.  In America we not only hide the dead, but the dying.

Ash Wednesday is perhaps the only time in the year, when through the use of the ancient sign of ashes, we remember, acknowledge, and embrace the fact that we are mortal, and are all going do what everyone who has gone before has done, which is to die. 

If it is painful to be reminded of this, we do so to be wounded, in order that we might be healed.

Because, first of all, there is practical value in facing our mortality. At the very least, that we might make appropriate and desired arrangements. Don’t leave it to relatives or strangers. 

Recently, after talking about it ever since we got married 7 years ago, Michele and I met with a lawyer and drew up our arrangements.  Yeah, at first it gives you a lump in the throat, but pretty soon you’re talking about it as if it’s already happened.  And there is a great sense of relief in doing so. I have always loved the Zen saying, “Go ahead and die, then live the rest of your life.”

But secondly, there is also value in facing our mortality, philosophically, in order that we might come to grips with it.  

Almost every people and culture do this better than us Americans.  Consider not only the French, but Mexicans, and their famous El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), when they go and picnic with their relatives in the cemetery.  Or Asians, who visit the family tomb at least once a year, to show respect for their ancestors.

So the least we can do is joke about it.  As Garrison Keillor said, “They say such nice things about us at our funerals, it makes me sad that I’m going to miss mine by about 3 days.”                                                    

Or my favorite, especially on this day when we remember that we are dust and ashes, as the late Erma Bombeck said:  “Dust.  Big deal.  I’m used to dust.”

Finally, most importantly, there is value in facing our mortality, in the context of our life and our faith.  Who was it who said that we never really learn how to live until we face the fact that we are going to die, whether in a few months or many years.  The mortality rate is still 100%.

I have always loved Psalm 90: 12, which says:  “So teach us to number our days, that we may receive a heart of wisdom.” 

There is value in remembering, as Ruth Duck reminded us in our opening prayer, that not only that we are mortal, but that God, who is our Source, is also our Destiny.  And Jesus Christ is our path homeward.  

And that’s why we’re here:  To remember our mortality, yes, but that in being wounded by remembering, we might be healed.

“In the midst of life we are in death;

from whom may we seek help?

Our help is in the name of the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.”

“I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus.  “Those who believe in me shall live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”


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