Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down…

A Homily for Ash Wednesday

Elizabeth A. Bloch

Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras – a time to remember and celebrate the reality that we are so much more complicated than we like to think we are.

Ash Wednesday – a time to remember and celebrate the reality that we are so much simpler than we like to think we are.

Last night at our Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras, we celebrated our complicated reality by dancing and parading our foolishness with joy and in community. It is an evening set aside – by the church – to revel in the truth of ourselves at our most gaudy, our most masked and bejeweled, our faces painted with the bright colors of abandon and silliness. We were meant to be at our most unruly and messy – that’s why we had ribs for dinner, fabulously juicy and messy food that encourages us to abandon table manners – with all our excess and craziness out in the open, all our fondness for pretending out in the open .

The name Shrove Tuesday comes from Middle English. It is the past tense of the verb to shrive, to be shriven. And this is so important: to shrive means to free from guilt. That’s what confession and penance and absolution have always been about: to FREE from guilt.

By the end of Shrove Tuesday, the masks and food and parading are stripped away. We bury our alleluias with the ashes already in the niches of our columbarium, and finally, we burn last year’s palms into ashes for our foreheads today. After this night that celebrates all our complexity and confusion, today we are shriven, shriven of pretension.

We are left now to deal with the humblest (humble is from humus –the dust of the earth), with the humblest, most naked truth about ourselves, the reality that we are so much simpler than we like to think we are: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

First – something about these words we use for the imposition of ashes on our foreheads. They come from several citations from Hebrew scripture. Three of those most directly quoted are from Genesis (3:19) For out of the earth you are taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return; from Psalms (103:14) For God knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust; and from Ecclesiastes (3:20) All are from the dust and all turn to dust again. In our former Book of Common Prayer, and many prayer books before that, these Hebrew words were not accurately translated. Possibly because of our human tendency to unhealthy self-contempt and hair-shirt penitence, the priest used to say:Remember that you are BUT dust and to dust you shall return. Please know that none of the sources for these words ever imply that judgment or condemnation or shame or badness. They are meant simply, as a way to describe us: Remember that you are dust. 

I have been thinking a lot about why we are called on this day to celebrate the reality of our simple-ness, our dustiness; about why the church’s calendar seems to relentlessly keep Lent in its cycle of seasons year after year, century after century; and about why Lent really is the Good News of Jesus. These are some ideas that have come to me…

I’ve been intentionally bringing to mind times in my life when I have been most shattered – shattered by loss I did not think I could endure, shattered by unmanageable grief or by my own failure to be who I think I am or who I wish I were or who I believe I should have been. In each painful instance my strongest memory is of profound exhaustion – the exhaustion of despair and depression, the exhaustion of spent rage and grief, the exhaustion of shameful humiliation I am unable to conceal, the exhaustion of weeping I cannot seem to control, the exhaustion of disappointment and helplessness to repair the damage that has been done, the exhaustion of watching my illusions turn to dust over and over again as I replay whatever it is in my head and heart and soul.

These are times when I have been leveled – leveled first, by whatever has happened, and then, again, by the exhaustion of my emotions and the emptiness I feel. I am leveled as if there has been an earthquake and all I can see is dust and ashes. But here is the mystery I’ve begun to realize about these times of leveling:

They are also times of great quietness and suppleness in me – times of letting go of all my fear-driven goals and the desperate energy to achieve them; times that relieve me of all my illusions about who I am and what I can achieve. They are times of the great relief of unavoidable humility, times when I am free to be the very least of who I am. The times of leveling are the times when I come back to earth – to humus – and join the human race again. And that’s the kicker: from that very place of leveling springs tenderness within me, and compassion and the amazing capacity to love and care for all my fellow earthlings. When I am leveled, I know that I am no different from any other person I may encounter – helpless and bewildered by a life I simply can’t stay on top of, kind one moment and mean the next, proud and arrogant in one moment, shattered and leveled in the next, afraid and defensive and generous and trusting, fully capable of love and joy and hate and rage, of hopelessly stumbling and falling down, and of hope in the Resurrection…

Every one of us, dust and ashes. Indistinguishable, one fleck is like the next. Every one of us, the same dust and ashes, including Jesus, who became dust and ashes to be with us. We are all in it together.

Ashes, ashes, all fall down. Ashes, ashes, ALL fall down. The fruit of the leveling times is compassion – compassion for every one, including myself. There are no exceptions. That is why Lent is really the good news of Jesus. That is why we need its presence in the rhythm of our seasons. Compassion for all, for all fall down.

Our ashes today bring us Lent, the season that declares: Jesus, our brother and our God, is in our leveling with us and has planted in our leveling the healing tools of love – tools of humility, truth, justice, and compassion. Our God knows exactly who we are and waits once again this Lent for us to lay aside our masks and know our forgiveness, to look forward to a real Easter – a time when we aren’t confused anymore about who we really are, a time when all our masks and barriers are gone for good.

Meanwhile, join me in the dust and ashes. Welcome to Ash Wednesday, our way-in to Lent. Welcome to a whole season of the blessed relief of remembering our simplicity and commonness with everyone and all creation. We are all in this together. Ashes, ashes, all fall down…    

Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, Washington, on February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday Readings

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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