Again, it is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the slow season of Lent. The beginning of our meandering trek toward Passion Week, that Christological culmination, full of dashed hopes and bewildering absurdity. Today, we allow ourselves to be told and dare to tell ourselves that we are mortal and are going to die. And we are strangely reassured.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And we feel the smear of oily, gritty, black ash just above our eyes. The deaths and dyings of loved ones and strangers and everyone in between is our cloud of witnesses. And stepping back out into the street, we see, we experience for one single day of the entire year a community of people who have chosen to be visibly marked with the cross of death. In our solitude, we are not alone.
All earthly suffering is encompassed within this trajectory between the dust of creation and the dust of death. But all suffering, all sickness, all sorrow is not “the sickness unto death.” What seems to be the worst – the worst we can experience, the worst we can endure of hardship and pain and loneliness and cruelty, the worst we can see the least of these suffering – there is something even more awful.
What could be worse than this worldly suffering?! Kierkegaard writes in his Introduction that “Christianity has discovered in its turn a misery that humanity as such does not know exists. This misery is the sickness unto death. What the natural man counts terrible, when it is all added up and he can think of no remainder, all this the Christian treats as a joke.” What could this misery be when there is so much misery in the world?
In the midst of the horrors committed by Trumpist Evangelicalism, Southern Baptist patriarchy, and Roman Catholic priests, why would we want to even consider something more horrific than that? Because those evils are atrocities of Christendom. No, there is something more horrifying than all of these horrors. And Christianity is all too painfully aware of it. “The natural man,” says Kierkegaard, “has no knowledge of what is truly horrifying, yet is not exempt from shrinking in horror. No, he shrinks in horror from what is not horrifying.”
What is this truly horrifying thing? What is this sickness unto death that we cannot endure, yet must look upon and seek to understand? It is despair. Is is the sickness of our Age. It is the sickness that dwells within our culture, our churches, our politics. It is the sickness within our selves.
For the season of Lent, we are going to journey into our own Infernos, with the Melancholy Dane as our gloomy guide. Each reading will be about a section of The Sickness Unto Death. We will gaze at the abyss of despair within ourselves. We will come to better terms with living with the kinds of despair that each of us carry within us. In the Wilderness, we will learn better ourselves, who we are, who are becoming. We will learn to live with this existential terror within us, within our spirits. “Only the Christian knows,” writes Kierkegaard, “what is meant by the sickness unto death.”
In the meantime, the press of the ash and dust of death is our salve for this day. The words of our mortality provide reassurance. Today, we receive the mark of creation, death, and the hope of salvation. We receive the mark of the human condition – even while we suffer the sickness unto death, even while we live in despair. We step out from safety into the Wasteland to discover the depths of ourselves. This is the way. This is the way. This is the way.