I Shouldn’t Be Alive is a television-documentary series on the Animal Planet Channel which features true stories of people who had a brush with death. They were victims of natural disasters and accidents. Stranded out at sea, buried in an avalanche, stranded in the Outback, and having barely survived an airplane crash in the Amazon Forest, death seemed like a sure thing. In fact, many of them thought, “This is it. This is how I am going to die.”
Invariably, these survivors were tempted to believe that there was no way out. And if that wasn’t bad enough, not a few of them were teased toward the beginning of their ordeal. Quite often a plane would fly over the accident site or some search and rescue team would be spotted by one of the survivors. Thinking that their rescue was imminent, they would later discover that no help was forthcoming. Despair would then set in. But after several days- just when all hope was lost –they were rescued. And upon returning to their everyday routine, they saw their life in a whole new light. They were inspired to live life to the fullest.
No doubt, death unexpectedly confronted the survivors on I Shouldn’t Be Alive. Yet, not everyone is afforded these dramatic circumstances where life hangs in the balance. As such, few people can experience this kind of renewed appreciation of life. This where Ash Wednesday comes in!
Very few institutions celebrate or commemorate the inevitably of death. But the Catholic Church does every year on Ash Wednesday. In fact, Lent begins with the commemoration of our death and concludes with the celebration of our Lord Jesus’ death on Good Friday. To the world, this seems odd indeed. Perhaps this is why Good Friday is hardly recognized anymore by public and private institutions. For most, I’m afraid, it’s just another day.
Nevertheless, as Catholics, we know that death, once considered to mark the end of all that is good in life, is actually the beginning of all the great things God has to offer his friends. This is why Psalm 116:15 states, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” And this is why Pope Leo XIII could say: "[W]hen we have given up this present life, then shall we really begin to live...He has given us this world as a place of exile, and not as our abiding place."
To confront death, therefore, is to better judge what is really important in life. And even more important, it inspires courage to endure short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits. Chief among the benefits is living a holy life and going to heaven. This is why in the spirit of Ash Wednesday the Saints have counseled us to often meditate on death as a spiritual exercise. St. John Chrysostom once said, “Go to the grave; contemplate dust, ashes, worms; and sigh.” And St. Bonaventure said, “To guide the vessel safely, the pilot must remain at the helm; and in like manner, to lead a good life, a man should always imagine himself at the hour of death.”
This should give us food for thought. We spend a great deal of time on our bodies. So much of the day is dedicated to feeding it, washing it, and caring for it. As important as that is, the brutal fact remains that it will inevitably suffer decomposition. But the soul will remain. It will forever endure. As St. Francis of Assisi said, it is not what we receive but what we give that will accompany us into eternity. As for our material belongings, they will be left behind.
Catholics who receive the ashes of their foreheads and faithfully observe Lent will fare better than those survivors on I Shouldn’t Be Alive. Death unexpectedly confronted them. But we are given the opportunity to confront death before it confronts us. As Fr. Lorenzo Albacete once said, “[T]o avoid the confrontation with death is a refusal to live life to its fullest…” Indeed, it is only through this confrontation, which Lent affords us, that life can be lived to full. And after it has been lived to the full, it is good- very good -to know that a much fuller and better life awaits the faithful in heaven. With this hope and expectation, the natural fear of death is bound to lose its grip on souls and “free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)