A Homily for Ash Wednesday
Margaret D. McGee
Greetings, fellow mortals.
We are creatures, you and I. Created beings, living through time.
In the more or less recent past, each one of us was born of a woman. And in the more or less distant future, each of us will die.
We are mortal.
One of my favorite Bible passages is in Ezekial: the valley of dry bones. ‘Dem bones, ‘dem bones. I like the description of the parched landscape, and of what happens there. I especially like the way the Lord addresses the prophet Ezekial all through his fantastic vision. Not by name, but by the term “Mortal.”
After setting the prophet down in the middle of a valley full of dry bones, the Lord says to Ezekial, “Mortal, can these bones live?” [Ezekial 37:1-3]
Gives me the shivers.
Each time the Lord calls Ezekial “Mortal,” it feels like a little reminder. A reminder of who’s God, and who’s not.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Once a year on Ash Wednesday, we gather to begin our Lenten turn toward God. We mark the turn in a unique ritual that also serves as a reminder of who’s God, and who’s not. Later in the service, those who choose to take part in the ritual will receive a mark on our foreheads, a cross drawn in ash, and be told to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Pretty straightforward. The dust in the words, and the ash on my forehead, remind me that I am made of earthly elements. And by coming together in community, by receiving the ashes, one by one, in the presence of each other, we get a bonus reminder that we are not alone in mortality. We all are made of the same particulate matter that makes up everybody and most everything else.
I love the Ash Wednesday liturgy, because I always need the reminder. It’s such a relief, the weight of the world rolling off my shoulders. I’m not God after all. I get to be dust.
I need the reminder, even though the evidence for our shared mortality is overwhelming and everywhere. Not at all hard to find.
In the spring, I plant seeds in my garden. The seeds are buried in dirt that’s a mixture of all kinds of stuff: sand, clay, compost, potash, worm poop, dust. Some weeks later, I might pull, say, a carrot out of my garden. Cut off its leafy top, give it a good scrub, and eat it. The top goes in the compost pile, where worms go to work, helping to make next year’s garden soil.
I know I’m made of the same stuff that carrots are made of—after all, I eat carrots. I see how it works with carrots. It’s probably going to work about the same with me. I might arrange to have my ashes tucked away out there in the Columbarium, but given enough time—given God’s time—this dust you see before you will eventually get back in the mix.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And yet, even with little reminders of mortality all around, as common as carrots, still, it seems to be only human to forget. To let awareness of mortality fall away, and with it, all perspective on what actually matters in the time we have together.
That is, until something happens. Until a big reminder comes along, something that brings mortality near, looking you in the face. It could come in the doctor’s examining room. Or in a death close to home. Or a birth that brings the gift of life home again. After all, being mortal doesn’t mean only that we get to die. It also means that we get to be born.
I received the gift of a big reminder of human mortality some years ago in a delivery room at Group Health Hospital in Seattle.
Present with me in the delivery room were my brother Brian, weeping; his wife Kathe, utterly exhausted; various medical folk, intently focused; me, juggling camera and notebook; and my brand-new nephew Kern, pink and kicking.
Somewhere in the vicinity, possibly back at the nurse’s station, there was also a birth plan. This document had been carefully written by Brian and Kathe in calmer days. Along with saying that they hoped for as little medical intervention as possible during the birth process, the birth plan said that, if everything went according to plan, I could be in the delivery room as an observer.
The plan had been presented to the medical team when we arrived at Group Health—hours and hours and hours ago. During Kathe’s long, roller-coaster labor, bits and pieces of it had to be let go. And then, with talk of C-section in the air, I was just resigning myself to being kicked out to the waiting room, when suddenly, the stars re-aligned, and the birth was happening.
The labor did not go as planned, but the birth did, at least to the extent that Kern managed to find his own way out, and his father and aunt were both in the room when he did it.
Also in the room was lots of technology. Many human inventions, evidence of our extraordinary drive to know and to shape our world. Artificial lights—this room was extremely well lit. Monitors that, until just before the birth, were reporting vital signs, beeping heart beats, and picturing labor contractions as giant seismic waves. There were trays of gleaming instruments, each precisely tooled for its own purpose. Against one wall stood the baby station. It had a tray that was also a weighing scale, and it had its own heat lamp.
After showing the mother and father their son, a nurse carried Kern to the baby station. I saw blood on the floor. The doctor was focused on sewing Kathe up.
The memory is decades old. Kern is a young man today, married, a civil engineer. He’s fine. He was fine at birth. His mom was okay too, once she had a chance to recover from the labor, and the nine months that preceded it. Nobody died in the delivery room that day.
And yet, along with the monitors, the lights, camera, and action, I saw Death present among us. There in the corner. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Grim Reaper—that gaunt figure in a cape, carrying a scythe—standing in the corner of the brightly-lit room.
It was my imagination. I knew that. A vision. But the image came through on its own, unbidden, powerful and clear. He looked quite at home. He looked to me as if he belonged there.
Why would I get a vision of a symbol of Death at the moment of birth? This was not a symbolic birth. It was the real thing. A certain number of people entered that room. The same number, plus one, would leave it. In the time between, I saw first hand what I’d only read about in school. I saw proof that we human beings are members of the animal kingdom. That we share basic traits with other mammals, traits that make us pretty close kin.
And I also saw the edge between what we can control, and what we can’t. The doctors and nurses in the room were great. They did everything they could with all the tools at hand. And yet in the end, we were all subject to forces utterly beyond our control. Subject to the laws of physics, and to the rhythm of labor, a rhythm as powerful and inexorable as the tide.
Death was in the room – real death. The possibility of death on that day, and the truth, the reality, of death to come.
If Kern can be born—and we knew he can—we saw it—we got pictures. If Kern can be born, then he can die. Someday, he will. His parents, and his aunt, came a few steps closer to their own deaths in that room. We all felt it.
Some things did die that day. Kern was the firstborn. Brian and Kathe’s life as a childless couple died in that room. As dead as dead can be. Even as I snapped the last shots of the last roll of film, their previous life was already fading in memory, like a dream, beside this now vivid reality.
You could even say that Kern had to die in order to be born. He died to the womb. In order to breathe, cry, laugh, grow, and love, Kern had to leave everything about life as he knew it behind.
So there we were at the birth, surrounded by death, and we felt great. Yes my brother was crying – crying for joy. And exhaustion. Mostly joy.
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus warns against being like the hypocrites who have their servants blow trumpets ahead of them when they give alms, or who pray out in the streets where everyone can see them, or who disfigure themselves when they fast, in order to look good to others. He gives this warning because, from Jesus’ perspective, the rewards of trying to look good to others are not worth the time of day, compared to the rewards offered through the love of God.
At least at the moment of Kern’s birth, we were about as far away from those hypocrites as we could be. We didn’t need to hire servants to blow trumpets. We could hear the trumpets all by ourselves. We didn’t need to disfigure our faces to show that we’d been suffering. We were wrecks already—bleary-eyed, smelly. But in that room, in that reality, no one was trying to look good for anyone else. Nothing mattered but each other, and the love that filled our hearts so full, full to overflowing, enough and more than enough for all the world.
We had been reduced to our elements, reduced to our mortal, dusty elements, and in that state we knew that those elements were good: godly, holy and precious in the sight of God.
Every once in a while, we get a big reminder of our mortality, of the boundaries of human life, and the deep mystery that lives within those boundaries. Some of these reminders carry more sorrow; others, more joy. It’s a mix. Almost always, they bring us back to what really matters in the time we have together.
And so, lest we forget, once a year we come together on Ash Wednesday, to hear surprisingly comforting words, to be marked by a sign that holds both death and life, and to know that we are not alone.
♦ ♦ ♦
This sermon was delivered on February 13, 2013 (Ash Wednesday) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Port Townsend, Washington.
The complete text for the lessons of the day can be found here on the Lectionary Page.
Grim Reaper image credit: (c) darrenwh / www.fotosearch.com
I love it, Margaret. One thing I think about every single time Kern’s birthday rolls around is the mother whose son did indeed die that morning. Remember that? While I was screaming in labor, a nurse came in and told everyone that a young man had driven his pickup off the bridge and into Lake Washington. He was later found drifting outside his truck. He just couldn’t make it the rest of the way. I sorely regret never sending her a note to tell her that she wasn’t the only one thinking of her son every January 18.
No, I hadn’t remembered that young man. Birth and death. Thanks, Kathe. And thanks for the gift of these memories.
Margaret, very moving – and I’m so glad I listened to the recording after I read the text. Your delivery led me places that the written words did not. You and I both know that death is not an end but a new and permanent beginning. That’s what Lent says to me. How appropriate that the ashes used in the ancient ritual are from the burning of the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration. Even through the pain and all-aloneness of loss, ultimately it is all celebration!
Margaret, thanks for posting the Ash Wednesday readings and the homily. The readings reminded me of the deeper reasons I went to a church when I was young, though I did not truly “believe.” We need comforts and things to help us think about all that’s too difficult in life to embrace or just very challenging to consider. It was a touchstone and part of my path to safety and joy and fullness in life. Thanks for helping me to see that.
And your homily is a great one! Worth printing, worth rereading, and delivered with sincerity and good humor. I love it!
Thanks, Deb! I appreciate your reflection about church-going when you were younger. There’s a lot about church that makes me uncomfortable, not the least my own doubts about what “really” happened in the stories, and how those stories have been variously interpreted over the years. But I do find people I can talk to about these things at church, and I like that.
Thanks for your kind words about the homily — you gave me a glow!