I have been surrounded by death the last few months. There was the death of my mother before Christmas, and two funerals at Grace in recent weeks. Yesterday morning, I visited someone in hospice care and we talked about death as I prayed and read Psalms with her. After that visit, I came to the church and burnt the dried palms from last year’s Palm Sunday and prepared the ashes that I will use to mark the sign of the cross on our foreheads and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This is now my tenth Ash Wednesday at Grace and I’m increasingly conscious of those people whose foreheads I daubed with ash and said, “Remember that you are dust…” and who in the years since, I’ve said while committing their remains to their final resting place, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Of all the intimate and powerful acts I perform as a priest, there may be none so intimate or powerful as what I do today, for as I say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…” I am saying it as much to myself as to you.
In our culture, we do almost everything we can to avoid talking about, thinking about, or being near, death. We don’t even use the word—someone has passed, they don’t die. We go to extraordinary lengths to avoid looking old, spending billions on cosmetic surgery to look young. We are so averse to speaking about death that we’ve invented a word, “cremains” so we don’t have to confront the reality of ashes.
But then we come hear and have our foreheads smudged with ashes and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
To face our mortality with honesty and admitting our vulnerability is no easy thing. But it is an important first step in the work we need to do. Lent is a season of repentance and spiritual discipline. But to ask God’s forgiveness, to receive God’s forgiveness requires that we first admit who we are, acknowledge our sin and brokenness, open our selves and our hearts to God’s redemptive and forgiving grace.
We see that in Psalm 51, which we will recite together later. It’s a psalm of repentance but as the psalmist acknowledges his sinfulness and prays to God for forgiveness, there’s a moment when the tone changes:
Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
It is only through such confession, and honesty about oneself, that one can fully experience the joy of God’s forgiveness.
There’s another image that haunts me each Ash Wednesday, a verse from the Joel reading, “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” My attention was first drawn to it years ago by Tom Davis, a priest who has himself now entered the larger life, as we were preparing for services at St. James, Greenville.
The image of priests weeping between the vestibule and altar, or as we might say, between the sacristy and the altar haunts me because it evokes a moment of intense repentance and it goes against the priestly decorum we display and that is expected of us. In the larger passage, the prophet Joel is talking about an imminent catastrophe, a natural disaster, a plague of locusts that has come upon the land and destroyed the crops. Interestingly, he does not attribute this natural disaster to punishment for the evil of the people. He offers no explanation for the coming destruction.
But he does offer hope: “Return to the Lord…”
The prophet continues:
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
As we confront our mortality this day, as we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, as we confess our sins, and acknowledge our brokenness, as we weep between the vestibule and the altar, may our broken bodies and spirits be filled with the joy of God’s forgiveness, and know the immeasurable power of God’s loving grace.