The Ash Wednesday Immortality Bus

There was a dark horse in this year’s presidential campaign that you missed. And what […]

There was a dark horse in this year’s presidential campaign that you missed. And what a shame! This gentleman really promised to turn things around, in ways no one else was talking about. And I know several of us really liked the idea of bringing in a Washington “outsider,” someone who wasn’t going to go by the same old Washington rhetoric. Someone with something new to say, someone with answers to the questions no one had the guts to ask. Well, this guy had them. He wasn’t caught up in the same issues every other politician talks about, and I think, if we had only known about him, he really would have made some waves.

Of course, I am talking about Zoltan Istvan. Yes, that is a real name, and no, not from Star Trek. He was the presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party, a party whose purpose is to, and I quote, “become god-like and overcome death.” Zoltan spent his months before the election driving around the country in an RV camper shaped like a coffin, called the “Immortality Bus,” proffering the gospel of science and technology, and its ability to overcome death in our lifetime.

“I’m hoping,” he wrote, “my Immortality Bus will become an important symbol in the growing longevity movement around the world. It will be my way of challenging the public’s apathetic stance on whether dying is good or not. By engaging people with a provocative, drivable giant coffin, debate is sure to occur across the United States and hopefully around the world. I’m a firm believer that the next great civil rights debate will be on transhumanism…”

Now, before we all roll our eyes at just one more kook in Silicon Valley who thinks that technology is going to save the world, he’s not alone. Even Google has a “human longevity” program. It is called the California Life Company (Calico for short), and their expressed interest is in “tackling aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries.”

I would also say that, whether we’d ride around in a coffin-shaped bus or not, we are all on board. Istvan’s rhetorical question—is dying good or not?—is rhetorical for everyone: no one wants to die. No one wants to be camping out, as Jesus puts it, “where moth and rust destroy.” No matter how you slice it, dying is not good. Ever. When it comes down to it, we’re all practical immortalists. Which is one reason why today, Ash Wednesday, is one of those holidays that’s never going to be coopted by our culture at-large. Easter may go the way of chocolate bunnies and Peeps, we’re still trying to hold on to Christmas, but Ash Wednesday is safe. The message of Ash Wednesday—“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, where we say with as little abstraction as possible, “You are going to die.” —is one we’ll get to keep all ourselves.

And while we may be going to church today, it’s not as if we aren’t driving our own Immortality Buses to get here today. We’re all aware, sort of, that we’re going to die. But in the meantime! We get super into nutrition and our bodies: we do the flax-kale-almond butter smoothie thing. We stay unbearably busy: we go-go-go until we drop and if there’s a moment when the thought comes to us that one day, we might, you know…NOPE! Gotta run! We invest in the future of our family: we focus on the children and the grandchildren, their schooling, their friends. Or we invest in our “legacy”: we pretend as if we’re okay with death, but what we really mean is we’d like to set up all the pieces for how we think we should be remembered.

Just like anyone else, our lives are premised on the denial of death. Talking too much about death or dying is morbid. Depressing. Pointless. Why talk about something you can’t control?

Well, you talk about it because you live it, either in your head or in experience. If I’m honest with myself, I think about death and fear death all the time. Sometimes I’ll just be having a conversation with Hannah, my wife, when the thought comes in, “Oh my God, you’re going to die. I don’t get to keep this.” Or you’re driving around town and this terrible weight sets in—the same drive, the same Wednesday morning routine, the same job—until what? Until death? Or there are the nights, when you step outside to take in the stars, and what has other times been a splendorous view instead feels like the edge of an uncaring and cold universe. And you, who came out for a little respite, suddenly feel alone. Even warm memories—old vacation spots, familiar smells—are  enmeshed with pain. The feeling of nostalgia is bitter because the moment we loved so much ended; it didn’t last. This is what Paul meant when he described a world “groaning in travail,” a world “in bondage to decay.”

Maybe someone you love has died recently or is dying now. Suddenly you are standing on the edge of a deep and terrible chasm. At the edge of meaninglessness. Your eyes are opened to the ridiculous amount of time you spend keeping ridiculous things going—the internet shopping, the dusting of antiques, the people you hang around that you don’t actually enjoy that much. Death comes like a judgment upon the trivial: have I invested wisely? What is even worth investing in?

George Saunders’ new novel is called Lincoln in the Bardo. In it, he retells the story of Abraham Lincoln losing his nine-year-old son Willie while the country was engaged in Civil War. Their son died on a night when the President and his wife were holding a lavish party at the White House downstairs, Willie upstairs. Apparently Lincoln was so distraught he later, repeatedly, visited the boy’s tomb to hold his body again. Saunders gets into Lincoln’s head:

This is a trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget.

Lord, what is this? All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? This sitting-down-at-table, pressing-of-shirts, tying-of-ties, shining-of-shoes, planning-of-trips, singing-of-songs-in-the-bath?

When he is to be left out here?

Is a person to nod, dance, reason, walk, discuss? As before?

A parade passes. He can’t rise and join. Am I to run after it, take my place, lift knees high, wave a flag, blow a horn?

In other words, all the human projects, even the most noteworthy projects of the most noteworthy President, are rendered meaningless in death. Death is the great leveler of these projects, of every human hope and ambition and good intention.

I don’t point this out to be morbid or negative, I say this because this is what Jesus is saying time and again in the gospels. If all you have are your projects, no matter what those projects are, no matter how righteous those projects are, no matter how much good happens because of those projects, death is still coming for you and your legacy.

Jesus keeps looking—and forces us to look—out over all our accomplishments and ambitions—the elaborate home decor, your department’s ground-breaking research, your reputation for being kind or good or smart—and the uselessness of it all to stop what’s coming. He says these projects have already won their reward. They have no currency in heaven. God is not interested in them. They will die with you.

Which is an utterly offensive thing to be told. It is offensive to hear that everything you do, say, accomplish, maintain, rear up, win over, or influence will, one day, be snuffed out. But what is even more offensive is to hear Jesus say that none of those things are changing your scoresheet with the Almighty. That just can’t be true.

But in Lent, we are supposed to ask, what if it were true? What if, upon making it to the pearly gates, Jesus said nothing about how timely you always were or how generous you were with your peers? What if he didn’t credit you for the good choices you made and the temptations you avoided? Once you got past the unbearable embarrassment of it, that no “great” thing you achieved (or didn’t achieve) was really getting you points; once you got past that, wouldn’t that sound kind of nice? That all the striving and elbowing forward, all the talk about making a mark or being remembered, all of that was rendered mute? What if it were true? Well, it would sound kind of freeing, I suppose.

But regardless of whether it is true or not, that salvation is not about the life we lived, we couldn’t bear to hear it. We had to silence that message. Because we’re immortalists—we’re going to live forever. We’re going to make a mark. We’re going to prove to God himself we’ve earned the right. So we kill the man who told us we would die. We lifted high our fear of death, we nailed it to a cross. And we got back on our Immortality Bus. And we moved on.

And this is where the great reversal happens, and this is why we come to celebrate Ash Wednesday after all, why it is not so gloomy. Somehow, someway, our good news comes through that which we avoided and continue to avoid. On the cross, Jesus Christ did his saving work in death itself.


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3 responses to “The Ash Wednesday Immortality Bus”

  1. PatriciaF. says:

    Ethan–thank you so much for this post.

    This New Year began painfully for me; a very dear friend died unexpectedly, three days in. For most of January, I was looking at that ‘abyss’ that you so perfectly described. My friend was a Christian, so there is some comfort in knowing where he is now.

    But that thought of death–that all the things that I thought mattered–can be quite frightening, at a time like this.

    Thanks again for your post.

  2. Patrick Lafferty says:

    Unless you are depending on Saunders’ retelling, I think the detail about young WIllie dying the night of a party at the White House might be a bit off. He was, according to the google search source below, suffering from that as yet undiagnosed typhoid as his parents threw the party celebrating the renovation of the White House, but it appears he did not succumb until some time later.

    Oh and Willie was around 11, not 9, when he died:

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