Ash Wednesday 2016
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. When I was at the cathedral I did a lot of funerals. We buried an average sized congregation every year, about 60 people, so in the time that I was at the cathedral, I probably did more funerals than most clergy do in their lifetime. I loved them. There is something about walking the final journey with someone and their surviving loved ones that is sacred and holy and humbling. The Episcopal funeral liturgy is full of rich prayers that have been prayed for over a thousand years by faithful Christians. The prayers help make a container around our grief and remind us that even while we may not know it in the moment, we send our loved ones back to God with the promise and the hope that their life is changed, not ended.
There is a lot about funerals that I love, but one of the most moving parts for me, is when I am actually putting someone’s ashes in the ground, or their final resting place, and making the sign of the cross with sand while saying the words: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our beloved, and commend their remains to their final resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,. The Lord bless them and keep them, the Lord make his face to shine upon them and be gracious to them, the Lord lift up his countenance upon them and give them peace. Amen.” (BCP p. 502)
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Ash Wednesday is not about us reminding ourselves of our total depravity, but about reminding us that we are from the earth, and that God breathed life into that earth. We are earth mingled with the breath of God. God so loved the creation that God gathered up dust and created human beings by breathing life into them.
Ash Wednesday is about connecting us back to that moment. Nadia Bolz Weber gives us a beautiful image for Ash Wednesday in her book Accidental Saints. She gives us the image of our lives being a long piece of fabric. And however long that fabric is, one end is our baptism and on the other our death. Ash Wednesday is the day that the cloth is folded and the two ends come together, our baptism and our death. We put a sign of the cross in ashes where we have received a sign of the cross in oil at our baptism, sealing our baptism and marking us as Christ’s own forever. So, on Ash Wednesday we make a cross out of ashes to hearken us back to this moment, and to remind us to whom we belong.
I have always struggled with the reading from the Gospel of Matthew that we have for today. “Beware of practicing your piety before others” being part of what we read and pray about on the day that we put ashes on our foreheads and go out into the world. But it struck me this year that this is not about putting ashes on so that everyone else will WHO we are and to whom we belong. We are dust mingled with the breath of God.
If we were somewhere where we had gotten our ashes first thing in the morning, and had them on all day, there would be times periodically when we would be reminded that we had ashes on our foreheads.
I know there have been times when I have forgotten the ashes on my forehead and I will itch and when a\ I scratch the itch, my hand is smudged. Other times I will be startled to see the image of myself in the mirror with ashes on my forehead. Those startling moments are an opportunity for remembering, we are dust and to dust we shall return. God’s beloved dust.
When I had this insight, it made me feel some reconciliation with this passage. When I was first ordained, I wore more collar a lot more than I wear it now, and I wore it to remind myself of my ordination vows, not to set myself apart, but to remind myself of who I was now. Whenever it rubs, or when I see myself in the mirror with it on, I remember.
Ash Wednesday is when we are reminded that we are beloved dust creatures and that we will be returned to the dust, but that dust belongs to God. We are God’s beloved dust, so in our broken, fragile lives, we remember that is with us, even in the ashes.
The Reverend Canon Rebecca Crummey, Executive Director