Remember that you are dust

Homily for Ash Wednesday
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

That particular winter afternoon in upstate New York started out pretty much like most others: I trudged through the snow, making my way from my East Hall women’s dorm room to the John and Charles Wesley chapel auditorium. I was a freshman at this rural, Christian college where life, in many ways, felt more like the 1950’s than the 1980’s. It was a Wednesday, so I knew predictably that we would have a guest speaker for chapel, although I hadn’t bothered to check on who it was. Until this point, I’d been a pretty faithful and obedient kind of kid, moreso from fear than from choice. There was something about being at this particular college, though, which was draining me. It was what I called, “J Crew Christianity” where everyone looked the same, dressed the same, thought the same, sang the same praise songs, used the same evangelical buzz words. Personally, I was more focused on grades than godliness. I entered as a pre-med major, so my studying and lab time was my priority. I was scientifically minded, drawn to questions, not platitudes. Lately, those questions tended to focus on the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized and what our ethical response as Christians should be. As my roommate told me on her way to a popular campus prayer meeting that I declined to attend: I was starting to behave like the fringe people who sat in back of the cafeteria squishing up their chickpeas into make-shift hummus as they plotted to form an amnesty international chapter under a cloak of secrecy. I knew this was true, by the way, because I sometimes sat near them when I was late getting to the dining hall and my friends had already eaten.

I was thinking about those supposedly dangerous vegetarians and pacifists when I entered the chapel and heard some huge hullabaloo going on just inside the chapel doors, whispering and pointing, “who is that?” and “do they dress like that all the time?” and “I can’t believe that they let someone like THAT come to chapel HERE!” My curiosity had been engaged. So, I slipped in to my assigned seat to see a person wearing a monastic robe calmly sitting on the chapel stage, smiling quietly. My next door seat-mate said something sarcastic like, “This is ridiculous…are there even any Catholics here?” I hushed her from her chatter and decided to listen.

It turned out to be a really interesting lecture on the history of Ash Wednesday in the early Church. It’s been quite a few years since then, and the details of that lecture are fuzzy, but it was the first time I had heard of Ash Wednesday referred to as something in which the Church invited people to participate. I had always seen it as some action of individual piety and, in fact, had been taught to look down at the people who walked around with ashes because we…the “real Christians” were people of the resurrection who didn’t need to think of Jesus still hanging on a cross. My thoughts began drifting to the people I’d seen with smudged ashes on their foreheads, and my Catholic friends who went to Mass before school with their families and came in late, rubbing ashes off their foreheads so as not to stand out. I was pulled out of my meandering thoughts by the voice of the young-ish monk who…just before being upstaged by the praise song leader…announced, “Oh, if you are a closet Roman Catholic or even just curious, I will lead an Ash Wednesday liturgy tonight at 7:30 in the East Hall basement chapel.”

I heard a few audible gasps. And I felt a deep calmness settle in my soul as I realized with a profound and ironic joy that there were going to be ashes imposed in the basement of my dorm. It was almost scandalous. It was, actually, irresistible. God’s grace always is.

That evening at 7:25, I closed my textbook and told my room-mate I was going for a walk. “It’s late and it’s dark.” she said. “I’ll be back in an hour” I told her. I snuck down the back stairwell at the end of our fourth floor dorm hallway and began my descent to the basement. The lights seemed dimmer and every footstep echoed. I finally reached the basement and saw the chapel door ajar. I cautiously peeked in. The youngish, smiling monk motioned for me to come in and sit with the few other brave souls who had also made the Ash Wednesday journey. We didn’t make eye contact, but I was pretty sure I’d seen at least one by the chickpeas at the salad bar.

I sat down and closed my eyes. The musty, unused chapel now had a scent of melted beeswax from several lit candles. It was calm, and I felt apart from time and place. We read scripture, and we prayed. We were invited to come to the altar and kneel which, in my evangelical life at that time, felt pretty much like the altar call most every service ended with. Except this was silent, and bigger than me. I felt the cross of ash imposed on my forehead like sandpaper infused with healing balm.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I remembered my Great Aunt Edna the prayer warrior; my Uncle Bud, tragically killed too young by a drunk driver; my high school history teacher who died suddenly in my senior year, a few days after telling me that he thought I could be a professor someday.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I thought about the conversations I had with my residents at the nursing home where I worked on weekends and over my breaks. Agnes, who couldn’t speak but looked at me with eyes that said she was just ready and waiting to leave this world so she could see the next. Tom, who just said it outright, “Hope to see God tomorrow but if not, I’ll see you instead.” The Smiths, who loved and doted on each other…and now widowed Mrs. Smith who grieved her husband’s death and would tell me as I helped her get ready for bed how she prayed every night to see him again in heaven. “Soon” she would say, “soon.”

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The candle wax was melting low, and the young-ish monk put his hand on my shoulder. As I rose, I smiled and said thank you. I meant it.

Sara Miles, in her book City of God which details an Ash Wednesday lived out on the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District, gives words to the shocking yet resonant truth of this day:

The good news of Ash Wednesday, the blessing so many people seek so fervently, comes from acknowledging the truth: that we are all going to die. That these busy lives, full of eating and drinking and buying and talking on our cell phones, are going down to the dust. That despite the lies of the culture, the fantasy that money or objects will keep us alive, we mortals are just mortal and connected to one another through that raw, fleshy fact. And Christian evangelism, what we’re doing out there on the street, proclaims publicly that we are all also connected to God, past death. (pp. 139-140)

Those first ashes…imposed on my forehead over 30 years ago…offered me something that the world in which I was moving through listlessly could not. There is a depth and a yearning in our lives for that which is imperishable, that which belongs to God. We can’t grasp it all at once. We cycle through our liturgical year, coming back year after year to this day where we kneel, and rend our hearts, and open just a little more deeply each time so that the profound truth of God’s love can reach us through all the fortified layers of self-protection that we build. God’s earth shattering love sometimes comes to meet us in the gritty, ashen lines of what remains of the perishable.

But the imperishable is where our hope resides, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The mystery and meaning of Ash Wednesday…this day to which the Church calls us…is that we are thankful and grateful for a confrontation with a truth that we don’t want to acknowledge. And yet, when we are confronted with the reality of death, we are confronted with the greater truth of resurrection. We see it here, in the Church…over 2,000 years later and here we are, connected with God and each other.

“Ashes,” says Sara Miles, “are what a fire cannot burn; what’s leftover from a fire, or from a life.”  We wear the ashes of the perishable to remind us of that truth; but it is the imperishable truth of divine love, redemption and reconciliation which remains with us, urging us onward in this journey together through death into life. The Church calls us to Ash Wednesday not just because we need to be reminded of that truth as individuals, but because the Church needs that reminder, too. Our differences, our divisions, our wrestling with the perishable…these are not the end. They will also fade away, leaving us to know the deeper truth of the reconciling grace and redemptive love of Christ, who has made and continues to make us One.


About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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2 Responses to Remember that you are dust

  1. Patricia says:

    Beautiful, thank you for this

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