220302 Ash Wednesday
March 2, 2022
Sermon: “Dust to Dust, Celebrating Life”
Rev. Kristian Wold
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
How often have we heard these words? How many gravesides have we stood at in grief as the pastor intones the ancient words and an assistant traces the sign of the cross in sand on the casket?
I have spoken these words over the caskets of men and women, strangers to me and many very close, old and young. (Once there was a casket just three feet long, a still-born baby inside. Once a young father held his toddler’s hand as they said a final goodbye to a beautiful wife and mother. And another time a grief-stricken elderly woman had to be restrained from jumping into the grave of her adult son.) There have been days of scorching heat, days when the skies opened up in deluge, and days so cold we couldn’t stand more than five minutes before hustling back to our warm waiting cars. I’m sure you have your memories too; we’ve all been there. More importantly, we’re all going to be there one day soon or late, and those words will be spoken by others over our bodies.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Death is the ultimate common ground on which we stand with all humanity, indeed with every living thing on the planet. Remembering our shared mortality has the potential to spark compassion in us. It did for the poet John Donne who famously reflected:
No man is an island, Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main…
Each man's death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Tonight we listen for the sound of that tolling bell with the ears of our hearts. The words and actions of tonight’s liturgy are resonant with its solemn tones. Here we are offered words and a gesture that seem to have arrived from our future, from our own funeral liturgy, as a premonition or a kind of echo-in-reverse. Remember that you are dust, we will hear, and to dust you shall return.
It's not the kind of advice you’ll hear in a self-help book. It’s not something your school guidance counsellor will say you should do. Far from it. Actually most of our culture tries in every possible way to avoid the thought of death, to gloss over its reality.
Why do we do it? Why do we come here for this strange, counter-cultural ritual? Are we just morbid and driven by gloomy guilt as the world often says we are? Maybe. But I don’t think that’s really why most of us are here. That’s not really what is meant in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday. In fact it’s just the opposite. Tonight we remind ourselves of our mortality so that we can truly celebrate the life we have been given! So we can embrace more fully the gift of the eternal present in which we meet God.
The book of Sirach says, “In all you do remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin.” And Psalm 90 notices that our lives “pass away quickly and we are gone.” And so the psalmist prays: “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” The ancient wisdom says that intentionally remembering our mortality need NOT lead to depression and despair, but actually can be the path to living in the here and the now with more generosity, compassion, and gratitude.
Fifteen years ago at about this time I was given a small reminder of my own physical fragility in the form of a cancer diagnosis. I was hustled through a summer of chemotherapy and on September 12, 2007 the doctors declared my body free of any cancerous cells that they could detect. To this day I call September 12 my personal “Celebrate Life Day.” It’s a kind of private Ash Wednesday when I really remember that I am dust and to dust I will return… a recollection that helps me have a little more patience with my son, sensitivity for my wife, attention for others, and gentleness with myself. And I remember to be grateful on this day—for fulfilling work, a caring community, opportunities for recreation… all the gifts of life itself.
At the bottom of our celebrations of life is really a celebration of God’s life for us. We celebrate the life of God the Father who created us from the dust of the earth, who loved us and called the creation ‘good,’ and who gives us the life of this world to enjoy: the scent of fresh rain, the sight of the sun rising on the mountains, the sound of a child’s laugh, the feel of crisp air on a winter morning. We celebrate the life of God the Son who redeemed our life from the grave, who walks beside us in all our sorrows, who is our companion on the path of life, and who will one day walk with us through the experience of death. We celebrate the life of God the Spirit who is the feeling of gratitude itself that wells us in our souls, who gives us the gift of love and relationship with family, friends and community.
In the end the reason we as Christians can celebrate life by remembering our mortality is that we know that in Christ God has triumphed over death. Seperation—from God, from our loved ones, from our truest selves—has been overcome. What have we to fear anymore? For we can confess with Paul that neither death nor life nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God.
In your goodness you have blessed us with the gift of life.
With this precious gift we offer ourselves to your service
and dedicate our lives the care and redemption of all that you have made.
Through Christ Jesus our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen!