There’s a story about Alexander the Great. It is reported that when he was on his death bed, he called in his generals and told them about his three final wishes. The first wish was that only the best doctors were to carry his coffin. The second, that his wealth should be scattered on the road to the graveyard. The third and last wish was leave the hands hanging in the wind for everyone to see. His generals were obviously surprised, and so they asked him to explain.
For the first wish, he said that he wanted the best doctors to carry the coffin to show that the best doctors are powerless to cure in front of death. With regards to the second wish, he explained that I want the road scattered with my wealth so everybody can see that riches gotten on earth will stay on earth. And for his third wish, he said I want my hands to swing freely in the wind so that people understand that we are born empty-handed and we leave with empty hands after what’s most precious is gone. And what is most precious is time.
I think that the often depressing part of our lives is our inability to take anything of value with us to the grave. If you have ever witnessed a Jewish or Moslem burial, you will surprised how poignant this point is emphasized. To an extent some even go down in the grave with a beautiful casket or an urn, and for me that does not convey sharply enough the idea of being dust, and to dust we shall return. Trust me, I have often wondered about why we take nothing with us to the grave.
But when I ponder on the images and stories of Egyptian Pharaohs and their burials in those pyramids, and the idea that some of these Pharaohs were buried with gold, axes, knives, beds, chests, chairs, vases and other furniture, as well as food, drink, and other perishables in pottery jars or bowls, makes me inch ever closer to understanding why we can’t take anything with us. Granted, these practices were based on the belief that these Pharaohs would have need of the items in the afterworld, yet what we have come to find out is they had little to no use for the items with which they were buried. This is sobering!
As we prepare for Lent, I am deeply reminded of the crying call within the Ash Wednesday liturgy “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Whenever I hear those words, either said to me or me to you, my hope is that we can all keep this realism at the very center of our lives, and remember, in fact, that one of the our wishes should be that we never ever forget that we are dust. To me, this sober reality helps us to craft a life that is dependent on gratitude for our own lives, and the very people that we love.
We may glean so much from Alexander’s story, but an invitation within the story is the value of time, spending time with the people we love and, dare I add, spending time with God. Some say, "time is money, time is priceless". The truth, however, is we can always get richer, but we cannot get any more of the time that we have already lost. When we spend our time on someone or with God, we are really giving them a part of our life that will never come back, but the value is the depth of our personal and spiritual enrichment.
One of the reasons Lent is so important is because it pounces upon us as a reality check. And we need that reality check, just so we don’t fall into the abyss of self-conceit. Indeed, we never get back the time that we lost, but how do we make use of the time that remains, the precious little time that we have?
More importantly, as we begin our Lenten journey, what three wishes do you have? And what three wishes are so important to you that you would want to carry them with you beyond Lent?
The best doctors carrying a coffin. Wealth spread on the road. Swinging hands outside of the coffin. Three sobering wishes. Dust we are, and to dust we all return. Maybe our only wish - not three - but our one wish should be one of being the best that we can or offering your best gift of time everyday of our lives, at all times and in all places.
Perhaps, just that one wish may be the only one that possesses some greater value beyond the grave.