I remember Ash Wednesdays at my old parochial school, Holy Family. In the smoky incense-soaked church, Father So-and-So would smear our foreheads with ash. The rest of the school day, I would try mightily to preserve that charcoal smudge – hoping my bangs did not brush it away. I wanted to make certain that certain people would have a good view, important people like my parents, my friends’ parents, shopkeepers.
I had a reputation to uphold! What a holy little kid you are! A little saint deserving of a holy card! Particularly I would make sure that my Grandma Cady and my Grandma Peacock would get a good glimpse before I scrubbed it off of my face.
But I was just a kid and what did I really know about Ash Wednesday? It was just a children’s game to me: a dark and wonderful game the priest devised for us to play. Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. We all fall down.
The first day of Lent – Christians sing a dark and sad song. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is a stark reminder that life is short and fleeting, precious and precarious. This day reminds us that one day God will find us all in his morning paper – decked out on the obituary page.
Eight years old, thumbing through a family photo album, a yellowed newspaper clipping fell to my feet. Picking it up, it was a death-notice, the first I had ever read. It belonged to my Great-great-grandfather – Zachariah Hazel.
Zachariah had been a prominent Washington, D.C. businessman and architect the clipping effused. The story continued: Zachariah had helped to direct the completion of the Capitol building and the placement of the Freedom statue atop the dome. Whoa! What? What? What? Bursting with pride, I ran to my Grandma Peacock. “Wow, I did not know we were descended from someone so famous!’
Grandma Peacock wasted no time bursting my little eight-year old bubble. “No, Joani Baloney. Your Great-great-grandfather was nothing but a common laborer – and possibly a drunkard besides.” O well, apparently, he had written it himself. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Open up your favorite digital newspaper and click on the obituary section. Every sooty cross marked upon our foreheads is a reminder of those who have gone before us – loved ones, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers.
Bittersweet, I recall when just a few years ago, I strew my own mother’s stardust on the ground. While Frank Sinatra crooned “Fly Me to the Moon” on my Ipod, my siblings and I returned her to the elements from whence she came. At Cedar Hill Cemetery, we scattered mom atop the graves of her loved ones: my dad, her parents, her in-laws, her best friend. To stardust and to her savior, my mom returned.
Death is the greatest of equalizers.
Whether we get an inch in the paper or a full-page spread, before God we are all to a person one and the same. “We are all made of stardust. It sounds like a line in a poem …but every element on earth was formed in the heart of a star.”
Exploding out of a supernova comes the stuff of which the planets are molded. Bursting out of a supernova is the stuff of which our bodies are made. Divinely formed from spit and stardust — to stardust we shall return.
Both biblically and cosmically, we traverse through this life with feet of clay. As Lent looms, let’s take a little look in the mirror. Let’s get a little introspective, a little penitential. A little time to reflect, pray, and possibly compose our own obituary.
Not like the one my not so great, Great-Great-Grandfather Zachariah Hazel wrote for himself, but a literally honest-to-God one.
Get it all out there. Don’t skip over the nasty bits. Put it all in there, warts and all. Personal confession is sobering stuff indeed. A cliché, yes, but it is truly true that confession is good for the soul.
Because no matter how messy our obituaries, the truth of Christ crucified is greater still. God’s wounded hands hung the stars. God’s outstretched arms reach out in love. God brings order to our earthly chaos and renewal to our earthly souls.
Yes, good God, “You are immortal, the creator and maker of humankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return. For so did you ordain us when you created us, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Yes, good God, fly me to the moon and let me sing among the stars.
NOTE: Wednesday, February 26th, my parish is hosting two Ash Wednesday services: one at noon and the other 7:30 PM: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 1608 Russell Road, Alexandria, VA 22301. All are welcome!