We, the heirs to the devastating dysfunction that was the twentieth century, clamor to hold on to life at all costs. We fear death above all else: it is the emblem summating all our lesser fears. The myriad anxieties which splinter and spoil our experience find their terminus in that most ancient enemy. We are born into this world kicking against the pricks, and on our deathbeds we will succumb to exhaustion, our flesh marred and torn to pieces by them. Futile resistance characterizes so much of our lives, the hopeless retreat against inevitability. We cannot bear the truth: each of us will die, and absolutely nothing — nothing can be done to prevent it.

Perhaps the most nauseating part of this, however, is that our dogged pursuit of life routinely misses its object. So many of our aims set their sights on life but fall hideously short. We enter the world congenitally inclined towards death-disguised-as-life, the addictions we will waste away from, overlong decades latent within our being, awaiting activation in history. But the pain and futility never stop us. Whether you’re Gilgamesh, Juan Ponce de Leon, Roy Batty, or Drake, we’re all always hunting after more life.

We all need to hear the truth that brings our intuitions and suspicions to completion, because hope only ever lies on the other side of the unmasking of its counterfeits. We must own the hard truth. The worst thing that could happen to you already has: you’ve been born into a world that seeks your degradation and devastation. The suspicion that lurks within all your experience on this planet, in the joys cut short and the injuries you’re certain you didn’t deserve — as well as the ones you think you may have — is correct. But is there anything good on the other side of this brutal truth?

When Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy, he was called to account by the Lord. He did so indirectly, prompting an angry Cain to redirect the dialogue away from himself. God, of course, already knew the truth of Cain’s guilt but wanted to coax him into admitting it himself. Refusing to do so of his own initiative, God announces Abel’s death doesn’t mean the erasure of any witnesses. The ground itself calls out against Cain’s sin and will no longer cooperate with him as it once did. Cain is driven out from his ancestral home, itself already once removed from Eden, consigned to wander far from all he has thus far known.

We are, perhaps, inclined to see the mark God gives to Cain as a punishment, but Genesis 4:15 makes clear that it is a gift of grace to protect him from retribution. To bear this mark identifies him as a wrongdoer, yes, but it is also to identify him as the recipient of God’s protection. Life can only continue for the first murderer because he receives the sign of having sinned. Cain will not receive the penalty that fits his crime. God’s mercy to Cain is widely out of proportion to Cain’s wrongdoing, but is there one of us for whom this isn’t true?

Similarly, the imposition of ashes drowns our pretensions in light. There is no shame being provoked in the giving of this sign — it is simply the truth, the painful truth we try so hard to conceal from ourselves. But it is the truth we must take on as our own in order to find succor. Seen this way, it is grace. Another speaks what we have been too fearful to name and brings it home to our flesh through human touch. This time and place of honesty unravels the risk implicit in acknowledging the truth, since the truth of God’s vantage point arrives in the words of another frail human for whom it, too, is true. We have nothing left to fear in unloading our normal attempts at imperviousness. Here we are all equally vulnerable and there is no possibility of pretending otherwise.

This is the best bad news we could receive. “This must be — now let it be so.” Get out of the way of it doing its work. Its work — ours is to remove ourselves from hampering it. The activity of passivity. Like dying. It is the gracious death warrant on all of our vanities, giving us what our fumbling lips could never express before our frightened, hyperactive minds intercept and short-circuit the admission.

This is the deliverance of the verdict we constantly suspect, and it’s now confirmed: our ambitions really are doomed to fail, doomed to drive the thorn further into our side. But this is good news, because the schemes that would deepen and enlarge our destitution are already pronounced dead. This is the relief that comes from admitting at last our powerlessness, an admission we were given permission by the form of the liturgy to bring to awareness and speech. Our powerlessness frightened us; to admit it felt like clothing a nightmare with reality. But it isn’t a dream — it’s already a reality. 

Death’s reign over the world means the frustration of our hopes, the foreclosure of the futures we’ve imagined for ourselves. But death under the reign of Christ means release from the clutches of that tyrant, the pale king. It means taking on the death of Christ in your own being and the lightning strike separating you from the tethers of all that is decrepit and moribund and loveless that entails. 

We are Tantalus being told the waters are rising and won’t stop rising. The rock split open for the Israelites is freshly split, inundating us in more water than we could ever imagine needing. And we need every drop of it, because every day we are dying of thirst. The waters will swallow us up, but we will drink at last. The elixir of life to the new humanity is fatal to the Adamic self.

The millstone tied around us in baptism plunges us into the grave, both downwards and laterally, hauling us through the flurry and decay of seasons and epochs, and in so doing reveals itself as the immutable anchor of the eschaton where Christ is all in all. We are rerouted from death through death. From death, the heinous reality of ceasing to exist in any meaningful sense, the eradication of even the remotest sense of God’s goodness to creatures, and the onset of total addiction to nihility. The termination of every possibility, the extinguishing of the forking paths of any imagined future, even the inactivity of rest between choosing and willing these futures. Through death, for the only assured escape there can be from anything is death. But this is true even of death. The terminus of all our smaller fears is terminated as we are unshackled from the networks of sin and death that claim ownership of us. Death is never wholly bypassed: we simply trade one death for another, defeat death with death, a death the tyrant powers of our fallen world would never have decreed. The way out is all the way in.

Jesus Christ is the entryway, and the entry fee is death — the death none of us already can avoid. But this is death inflicted by love and the word that beckons us on through the cross-shaped entry wound is life. Faith is a kind of death, as it is a surrendering of every attempt to grasp life and righteousness through one’s own power. Faith is dying to the activity of the Adamic self, always chasing and never apprehending. 

We are bound together in the union of ruin, and our restoration is the ruin of that ruin. In the sphere we who receive this word have been swept up within, the illusion of life gives way to death which gives way to life. The ashes of the covenant of grace speak a better word than the spilled blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24). “Avenge!” his blood calls out; “Forgive!” Christ’s blood effectually implores. Receive the word, receive the mark, and take up life at last.