Year A; Ash Wednesday; 2.26.2020
My roommate in college was from a teeny-tiny town in north central Kansas. She was a legacy in our sorority. Her name was Mary. Her mother and three sisters were all in the same sorority. In my day in college, sorority girls wore make-up and dressed stylishly. In my sorority it was a rare member who didn’t wear make-up.
Mary was wholesome, full-bodied and of Scandinavian descent. She was a strong, aggressive leader on campus. She was smart, and….she wore no make-up. She didn’t have time to apply it. And she didn’t care at all about wearing it.
Her very pretty older sister worried that she was so resistant to wearing make-up. So as a birthday present one year, the sister discovered some new kind of make-up – very pulverized rust-colored dirt. It was advertised as that when it was applied, it would complement any color of complexion. As Mary was opening the present, her sister said out loud, “This is the best shot we have that Mary will wear make-up because she’s always loved playing in the dirt!”
Ash Wednesday isn’t so far off of the idea that the people of God play in the dirt. Well, not PLAY, except last night when we created the ashes in the fire, our youth and Jane Redlon seemed to have a lot of fun!
Today, we wear dirt on our foreheads to remind us of our deep connection to God and to nature. Ashes, carbon, something living that has died and now burned, we wear on our foreheads. Not as make-up. But as a solemn symbol of our mortality and dependence on God alone.
Ash Wednesday calls the people of God to remember that we are included in God’s creation and with the natural cycle of life. In nature, plants, animals and human beings have a limited time on earth. We are born. We live a life. We die and return to the earth. The ashes on our foreheads remind us of that. We are humbled before God as we kneel and feel the black powder come across our forehead in the symbol of the cross with a few loose ashes tumbling down our cheek and nose. Ashes on the forehead is not a tidy action. My thumb is made black for days having placed the cross smudge on many, many foreheads. The smudge on our foreheads is untidy and always smears.
Life is not tidy. The cycle of life is difficult to contemplate. We don’t want to believe that the things we love die. We don’t like the idea of death at all. I remember several years ago learning about the live camera focused on the eagles’ nest high in a tree in Iowa. For weeks and weeks I would watch with thousands of people and many elementary school children every day as we checked into the live camera feed to watch the female and male eagles trade places sitting on the nest where four eagles’ eggs had been laid.
The weeks wore on but we watched and watched. We knew that soon the eggs would hatch and we would be treated to the joy of watching the darling new eaglets grow. As thousands of us watched, Teachers would ask questions on the live running comments, and experts who were in charge of that day’s watch answered the questions.
One morning as the expected day of hatching approached, the school teachers began their usual classroom day checking in to the live feed. “Class, what do you think happened over night? Do you think the eaglets have been hatched?”
That particular morning, as the feed came into focus it was clear that overnight, one of the eagles had killed a rabbit and placed it at the edge of the nest. It was a pretty grisly scene. I can imagine some children were horrified.
Some teachers shut down their live feed without explanation. Others asked the experts what went wrong. I loved the answer, “This is a perfect opportunity to teach your children the cycle of life.” And then went on to explain it. “The four stages of the life cycle are birth, growth, reproduction and death. You are seeing the beginning of the life cycle of the baby eagles that will be born. And you are seeing the end of a life cycle of the rabbit. The rabbit was killed to give food to the eaglets for them to grow. The rabbit was at the end of its life cycle.”
Ash Wednesday acknowledges our human life cycle and confirms that every single stage of it is in God’s hands. Our birth, our growth, our life and our death are all from God and to God we shall return.
Ash Wednesday not only sets before us the humble truth that in the end we return to our Maker, it asks us to reclaim the holiness of our lives. Ash Wednesday calls us to acknowledge that there is something more beyond dirt on our face, giving up sweets or chocolate. We remember we are dust, but even so, our lives have purpose, and death is never in vain.
One of my favorite sentences in our prayer book is during the funeral Eucharist are these words, “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.”
So, today, we mark the beginning of another Season of Lent, 40 days of making our way back to God in prayer, giving thanks, making a meaningful fast, returning to the holy life God calls us to. I’m imagining our St. Paul’s community is entering into these Lenten days with the sober recognition that no one escapes death, but that “Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”