I ran home at lunch today to burn last year’s palm leaves. It’s a funny smell and my neighbors might have wondered just what the minister next door was doing. Nothing untoward, truly – unless you consider taking a symbol of honor and life (the palm) and burning it to ashes to remind people that they are oh, so mortal untoward.
Another Ash Wednesday is nigh upon us. I think about my first Ash Wednesday as a pastor some twenty-five years ago. Death seemed neither imminent nor scary, just a nice little comma in this journey with God. But I stayed long enough in that first congregation to start loving those people, some of whom got sick, some of whom were dying as I drew a cross of ashes on their forehead.
Fast forward, as Ash Wednesday falls three days after what would have been my dad’s 89th birthday; as Ash Wednesday falls two days before my darling daughter’s 14th. I fear death now. I know the havoc it wreaks, the worry it brings, the dread not just of the slow march of dying but also the crushing emptiness of the one who is gone.
Yet here we are, making crosses out of ashes and saying to young and old, to hale and sick, to the faithful and doubting, mortals all, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Stern stuff, these ashes.
Here’s a little spoiler alert because I’m going to mention the end of The Good Place so if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read any more, but happy Lent.
I thought that last episode was exquisite, with the prevailing realization that what made life so precious was the knowledge that it would end. We would never know what would be our last sunrise to awaken to, what would be our last time to hear our favorite piece of music, what would be our last time to tell that old story and laugh and laugh. I remember the last time I spoke with my dad – and I knew it was the last – and it’s still so hard to think about and to write about. I said goodbye, then joined my siblings where I sobbed and fell to the floor.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. Ashes, ashes; we all fall down. We fall down in grief, in wonder, in agony, in worship. We fall down in disbelief, maybe, that all this will end, that to the dust we will return.
But unless the seed falls to the dust, to the dirt, and dies, no new life will come. Fall down we must. Rise, we will.