Ashes, Dust, and All That Flies Away

Jesus said to his disciples, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagoges and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
– Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
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Do any of us really need a reminder of our mortality?

Aren’t our bodies, with their aches and pains, enough?

Aren’t our lives, marked by worry about the phone call from the doctor or marked by mourning for a friend’s struggle with addiction or marked by sadness that we cannot protect our children from all that we would wish to – isn’t all of that stark reminder that we are dust?

And reading or hearing the news, with the tears that punctuate the interview, or if we can stand to, watching it on tv, as people flee and cities explode – or our own, smaller crises, like the bill we won’t be able to pay this month, or the secret that threatens to crumble us, if it gets out – isn’t all of that enough to convince us that to dust we shall return?

Do any of us really need a reminder of our mortality?

We come to this day, and we read this scripture – but listen, do we need it, either? Do you stand on the street corner and shout out your prayers? I doubt it. And if someone asks, “Are you ok? You look tired…” do you respond with a humblebrag about the new spiritual discipline you’ve adopted? Probably not.

These verses don’t quite translate to our context. They don’t hold up over the centuries because these aren’t the ways we practice our false humility and our obnoxious religiosity. But this is the scripture our tradition has chosen for this day.

For Ash Wednesday, we hear verses about humility and secrecy. About wearing our faith underneath, and about prayer being a conversation between just ourselves and God that nobody else can hear, and about our giving being so not about ourselves that we don’t even fully let ourselves know that we’ve done it.

We hear these verses on the one day that we submit our foreheads to each other’s hands, to be marked by this bold, dark smudge. We hear these verses about secrecy, and then, this one day, we publicly wear the declaration that we claim this faith, that we walk this journey.

Which might seem a little ironic. Because the ash draws attention to us. It identifies us. It proclaims to anyone who sees us, “I went to church today, and it’s not even Sunday!”

But, really, the ashes are more unsettling than they are obnoxious. They’re a kind of announcement that we know we’re going to die. And we wear that knowledge on our foreheads. The ash says, “Once I was not here. And there will be a time again, when I am not here.” And however much we don’t need reminding of that, it is still difficult for us to say it to each other, and to know it about each other.

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It’s been nearly two years now, but I remember like it was just the other day, when we lived in Kansas, and my boys opened the front door one evening and stepped out onto the driveway to find a pigeon waiting for them. It really did seem to be waiting. It didn’t fly away when they swung open the door, it just hung out. Came closer, even, when it saw them. My husband noticed it had a tag around its foot, so he called and reported the number, and the man at the Kansas City Pigeon Club said, “Yeah, that’s one of mine.” He explained that she was a homing pigeon – the kind that you can take with you when you travel, and release from wherever you are, and they’ll find their way back home.

This one, who had stopped in our driveway, was making the journey from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she’d been released, back to Stilwell, a small town about twenty miles from where we lived. She was so close to home, but she was tired. The man on the other end of the line explained that she wouldn’t fly at night, and he asked if we could keep her and release her in the morning. He told us she liked people, liked voices. So we brought her in; we gave her seeds and water and a blanket, tried to keep our cats far away. We read our kids their bedtime stories on the porch with her that night while they took turns holding her.

And in the morning, my older son – he was six then – was a mess. He had bonded intensely with this bird – or with the idea of this bird – in the less-than-24 hours we’d had her, and he did not want to let her go. He sobbed and begged and tried to make deals and did all kinds of planning a future with her in case she didn’t fly away. But she did. And he was crushed. And I tried to explain to him that she had a home, and she knew her way there, and she’d only stopped with us to get her strength back, and of all the homes between Tulsa and Stilwell we were so, so lucky that she chose ours to rest at for the night.

None of this comforted him.

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Because it is so hard to know that we are dust. It is heartbreaking.

But we know more than that. We know not only that we are dust, but that we come from it, and we return to it. And we know that dust is the stuff of creation. We are ash and stardust. Science tells us now there are galaxies inside you, and me, and that pigeon – the artist Jan Richardson asks, “Don’t you know what the Holy One can do with dust?”

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There will be time – I don’t know how long, and you don’t either – but there will be time between when you receive ashes and when you become them. Lent asks us, how will you spend that time? How will you spend your life?