Several weeks ago I was struck while listening to an interview with a man who managed a Goodwill store. He detailed some of the strangest donated items he has ever received: samurai swords and loaded grenades, taxidermied moose heads and multiple sets of prosthetic legs. I have always wondered what a place like Goodwill does with items it wants to discard and has no place for anymore. But one item he listed caught my attention most: an urn filled with cremated ashes. I felt curious, and quite sad, about this story. I wondered how someone had come across such an item before deciding to donate it. Did they discover it in the corner of a cluttered attic while tidying their house? Did they assume it simply to be a decorative vase whose style better suited a past decade? Were they aware of the urn’s contents but had no connection with the one whose remains it carried? What does one do with ashes? I wondered about the life of the person whose ashes had now been handed over and tagged with a green $2.99 sticker next to a stack of cassette tapes. How did they get here?
We don’t quite know what to do with ashes. But we are here.
And here, for one evening, we suspend our nightly ritual of smearing anti-aging creams upon our foreheads like a futile defense against time, and instead receive ashes in its place.
We interrupt our daily curation of image and reputation, seeking to project ourselves as capable and strong and successful, and instead ask to be reminded of our frailty and inevitable death.
We bring forward our babies and toddlers whose lives we spend inordinate amounts of time trying to preserve, defending against cuts and scrapes and broken bones, and instead claim aloud that they are dust and to dust they will return.
We carry our contradictions and fears like mismatched items in a box meant for Goodwill, willingly naming that some things need to be surrendered, even while we cling to them.
We don’t quite know what to do with ashes. But we are here.
Scientists tell us that humans, like every living thing on the planet, are made of stardust. Our lungs and our eyes and our skin—all were once matter suspended in the heavens, a gathering of hydrogen and helium that eventually exploded and died and floated to earth, settling into the stuff of creation. From dust we came and to dust we shall return.
Artists and musicians have been telling us the same for a long time, claiming that like stars we are golden and radiant, that in the midst of pollution and war and injustice we are trying to find our way back to a garden. From dust we came and to dust we shall return.
The creation account in Genesis 2 tells us something of this garden we seek. We read that before any plant life inhabited the soil, before herbs and flowers took root, God dug God’s fingers into the dirt like a master gardener and from the stuff of earth formed a human. God breathed life into this human who suddenly was animated and awake and alive, the human who moments before was nothing but a plot of dust under foot, the human who was soon split into two and as man and woman began to tend the soil from which they came. But this garden that held the origin of life soon became the site of death, the dirt and dust once substance of vitality now crowded with thorns and thistles, making the cultivation of life forever challenged. And the humans were reminded of the dust from which they came, and the dust to which they would return.
When Carl Sagan and Joni Mitchell and the Hebrew scriptures seem to be sharing the same message, seem to be singing the same tune, perhaps it is one worth paying attention to. Perhaps it is why we are here tonight, because we know that on Ash Wednesday, we will tell each other the truth. We will inhale and exhale and acknowledge that our lungs hold the dust of the earth, that they are at the same time both powerful and frail, sustaining life and unable to do so forever. We will name that the death and suffering we so long to avoid will, without question, one day be our lot. We will confess that despite our God-given calling to cultivate life, we so often sew death by what we do and by what we leave undone.
And if we don’t quite know what to do with ashes, perhaps it is because we are so removed from the fires raging around us that we forget how ashes come to be in the first place. We are here to be reminded of what we cannot see and what we choose not to see: each and every place a fire is burning, destroying life and leaving death in its wake. We need to be reminded of what so many have never had the luxury of forgetting.
A young mother of 3 battling end-stage cancer knows all too well the fire that burns within her very body, threatening to destroy it.
A Muslim neighbor longing to show his devotion to God in the ways he best knows how understands the danger of xenophobic fires ready to snuff him out.
A young girl trapped in a besieged city in Syria needs no reminder of the fire that rages all around her family and home and shattered sense of safety.
A mother with young children risking all to flee war and violence knows intimately the possible death they face by drowning in Mediterranean waters or starving in Mexican deserts.
A Black teenage boy can’t help but see the fires that have been burning in his still segregated neighborhood since well before he got there, wondering if they will stop in time for his children to be spared from the flames.
An elderly woman who has long felt a call to ministry knows the fires of doctrine telling her what she can and cannot do for God even as she so longs to follow God’s call.
A group of students can still smell the charred remains of what was once a space for their education and growth but is now the tomb of their friends whose lives were cut short by the fires of weapons, of instruments of death.
Creation itself groans as if with labor pains, feeling in every measure the weight of humanity’s greed and overconsumption and abuses, setting fires that threaten our own existence.
Where there is fire there is ash and we don’t know what to do with ashes. But we know that our neighbors feel the flames, that they need no reminders of death’s constant haunting, so tonight we willingly dip our fingers into bowls of ash and oil and display on our bodies the reminders of death. We look at our neighbors who know suffering as closely as their breath and we feebly acknowledge to them, “We don’t quite know what to do with ashes, but we are here, and we choose to bear on our bodies the marks of death and in doing so join you near the flames—the flames we started, the flames we stoke, the flames we pretend do not exist, the flames that were burning long before us, the flames that we still have yet to see.”
In November of last year, I watched in horror as fires spread with haste across California, consuming life and property and large swaths of creation without effort. A dear friend of mine, the chaplain at a university in Southern California, spent one night grieving the murder of an 18-year-old freshman, gunned down in a country western bar full of college students, and spent the next day watching as flames inched closer to her beloved home and campus. She shared photos of the devastation, the once bright and scenic landscape now charred and barren. The images were haunting. And then one day, a few weeks later, she shared a photo that took my breath away. There, in the midst of charred land and ash-soaked mountains, tiny blades of earthy green grass were emerging. Life was breaking through the death.
We don’t quite know what to do with ashes, but we are here as ones loved by a God who always has, a God who gather handfuls of dust and forms humans, a God who saw the fires we set and became vulnerable to them in the body of Jesus, a God who always is capable of resurrecting life from ashes and dust.