Today is Ash Wednesday in traditional Christian religions. People attend church services to receive a smudge of ashes on their forehead as a reminder of our human mortality—we will die one day and return to ashes. This day marks the beginning of Lent, a time of fasting and sacrifice. It is to remind us of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and preparing for his ministry.
I attended the 6:30 AM Mass, scheduled especially for those who have jobs to go to. The church was moderately full, much as it is at the early Sunday Mass. It put me in the thoughtful mood of considering how brief is our mortal existence and thinking too of what people have accomplished in all the years of those uncountable brief existences.
History looks back at time measured in decades, centuries and millenniums while physics and astronomy looks further back to the billions of years it took to form the universe. In such terms, the less than 100 years allotted the average human pales to insignificance, less than a blip on the time scale—seemingly inconsequential. Yet, here I am writing, and there you are reading this reflection.
We are given life, consciousness, and free will; the rest is up to us. In our brief experience of existence we have the opportunity to shape a bit of life, be it just for ourselves, or our family or our workplace . . . or for some, to shape a bit of the future. Humans are the only creatures with the ability to do that, all others must live with what is given, knowing only what is in front of them—they have no history, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy or art. But humans have changed the face of the earth with boats, bridges and roads; with machines to carry us places—even into the sky! We’ve discovered how to combine elements and formulate medicines to fight disease. We transport food from far away places to have for our use what is ‘not is season’. We’ve built houses and stadiums and theaters and cathedrals to enhance existence. Our communication systems and devices now reach round the world in an instant. We have books and TVs and DVDs to bring, at will, everything to our own little piece of the world. Life is one ever unspooling thread that continually builds today upon what was discovered, developed, devised and invented yesterday and the evolution will continue from today into tomorrow and the future.
We don’t like to think too much about our mortality, but doing so can awaken us to appreciate what we so often take for granted. Individually we have short lives but look what the human species has collectively brought forth from our creative ingenuity—the Bible says we are “created in the image of God”. Everything beyond the earth we stand upon with the fruits it yields is the product of cooperative human effort directed toward a goal. May we find the wisdom to choose worthy goals.