One of my new favorite songs this year is "If I Die Young," by The Band Perry. The opening words, "If I die young," have been playing over and over in my head since January when I first saw a Sam Tsui cover of it on YouTube. Every time I heard this song, or when it popped back into my head, I've thought about Ash Wednesday and I've thought about Lent.
I mentioned this to my church's young adult group last month at our Tapping Into Theology get together. Apparently, I'm not the only one who loves this song, and since we had been talking about how the church can engage culture and find meaning in things that are specifically packaged as "Christian," a few of our young adults suggested they perform it at our Ash Wednesday service (click HERE to view a video of the performance on YouTube).
"If I Die young..." How early did you think about death? Were you a child, a tween, a teenager? When did you first think about your own death? Do you remember?
I remember the first time I thought about my death. I was in kindergarten or first grade. I'm not sure which, but I know I still went to my Davy's house afterschool and we were watched by a woman named Mrs. McKinney. I had just heard that my great-grandmother had died. I had met her once, but I didn't really know he, or much about her except she made great home-made donuts. But it got me thinking about death, my death, if I died young. I don't know why, but I talked to Davy about it. "What do you think happens when you die? How do people recognize you? If I died tomorrow and you died 80 years from now how would I know you? Would anyone remember me?"
When did you first think about your death? We consider it morbid now for children to talk about death, especially their own. We don't want to talk about it. Parents get upset if their child talks about death, "shhh, we'll have none of that, you'll live a long life, that is so depressing." We don't want to talk about death. But the Psalmist asks God, to "Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90). It is right and good to know that we do not linger in this life forever, that our days upon this earth are numbered, to know we are dust and to dust we shall return. Ashes to Ashes.
When did Jesus first think about his death? Do you ever wonder that? We have no access to that information. The Gospel writers place the thought of his death quite early as you know, but that doesn't mean that he thought of it that early. It is the tendency of the Gospel writers, and the church after them, to put the shadow of the cross even over the crib. I have even seen a lighted cross atop a Christmas Tree.
There was an attempt upon his life while he was still an infant by a very disturbed Herod the Great, and though that attempt was foiled, the reader knows that someone will try again. Matthew, chapter 2.
"Why don't your disciples fast?" "Well you don't fast at a party, but the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and in that day they will fast. " Mark chapter 2.
And Simeon took the baby, 6 weeks old, held him in his arms and said to Mary his mother, "because of this child a sword will pierce your soul." Luke, Chapter 2.
"Destroy this temple and I'll rebuild it in three days," he spoke of the temple of his body. John, chapter 2.
Talk of death comes quite early in the gospels, but how early in his life? We cannot know. If it was early in his youth I wouldn't be surprised. The stereotype is that youth don't think about death, because they think themselves invincible. That is usually though by people who don't spend much time with youth. You get to know them, spend time with them, and eventually they'll ask you about death, because very few of them have not lost a friend in an accident, or to disease, or suicide. They know death can come upon them as easily now as in 20, 50, or 70 years. It was a teenage girl and her brothers who wrote this song reflecting on an early death. "If I die young," what will happen, what will it be like, how it will affect those I leave behind? There will be so much I didn't do, couldn't do, and so much potential gone all because of the sharp knife of a short life.
How soon did Jesus think about death? We know he began to talk about it with his disciples, when he was thirty. Mark tells us he told his disciples multiple times that he would be handed over, beaten, and killed. He thought about it. He saw it coming. He knew. He tried to talk about it, but the disciples, like us, didn't want to hear. Peter went so far as to rebuke him for such talk, "No, don't talk like that, you don't have to die Jesus, you don't have to die." Why are we so mad when someone says, "If I die young."
Thirty is young, at least I feel it is. I'm not thirty yet and I don't want to be old next year! Honestly, I'd be disappointed if I died in the next year. Perhaps I'm not as mature as Paul, because I don't long for death yet. I don't struggle between whether I'd rather live or die. There is so much more I want to do, want to experience, in this life. But death could happen. I know that. Jesus knew that, knew that better than we do. Jesus died young. His life was short, shorter than many wanted, longer than many wanted. His death hurt.
"The sharp knife of a short life," is a repeated image in The Band Perry's song. It's poignant. Death can cut us. Mary, the mother of Jesus knows. She was warned, "a sword will pierce your soul;" the sharp knife of a short life. Knowing doesn't really make it easier. Death cuts us. It rends us away from loved ones, it severs us from our future, we're cut off the world, like a shaving from a whittled stick just falling away to nothingness.
That's our fear isn't it, that death will cut us away from life, love, and everything else? That's why we think about it from an early age, because we are afraid of it, but the mystery of it also just entrances us.
Ash Wednesday is a time to think about death, to remember we are finite, we are mortal, we are fashioned from dust, and to dust we shall return. But, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the preparation for Good Friday, when Christ was hung on a Cross and the Godhead itself experienced the sharp knife of death and its ability to hurt and cleave and separate. "My God, My God why have you forsaken me?"
But Good Friday is not the end. We know that Christ's death is not the final chapter of the story we begin today by thinking about our own death. The story continues to Sunday, to the resurrection.
Paul writes that if we are united to a death like Christ's, we will also be united to a resurrection like Christ's (Romans 6:5). United. It is the name of the church I serve, two churches which came together as one, so much so that we cannot differentiate the two anymore. We are United now.
We fear the cutting power of death, the sharp knife of a short life, because let's face it; all our lives are short. Our lives are but the blink of an eye, but Paul has a different word to combat the fear- United. We are united to Christ through a power even death cannot sever.
We think about our death because it is good to number our days, but we also know death cannot cut us away from all things. Christ has a hold on us, and that means life has a hold of us. Christ has gone to prepare a place for us that where he is, there we may also be.
The sharp knife of a short life still hurts, but the power of Christ's love and resurrection heals and unites us to the source of life and love and hope.
As I made the mark of the cross in ashes on foreheads last night, I urged the congregation to remember, "that your days in this life are not limitless, to make the most of them, but also know whether you die young or old, you are Christ's and united to Christ. No cross, no death, nor angels or demons, heights nor depths, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
The cross you might have received on your forehead last night, that was once a symbol of death and destruction, is now the symbol of hope and life. Such is the power of our God. If we die young, we die to Christ; if we live, we live to Christ, so whether we live or whether we die, we are Christ's. May this mark, which you may have washed off as soon as you got home, be indelibly printed on your soul and remind you who you are and who you are united to.