by Benjamin M. Stewart
Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Director of Advanced Studies
Some of us know that the ashes traced on our foreheads are traditionally made from the palm branches from last year's Palm Sunday liturgy. Probably not as many of us know that the ashes used today here in Augustana Chapel come from a mail order church supply company and so make their way into the chapel by way of a procession organized by the United States Postal Service.
But when the ashes-wherever the come from-are finally pressed into our own skin, we may wonder: what exactly is in those ashes?
The words we hear, "remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," are much like words normally spoken outside, under the sky: "we commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada., Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leader's Desk Edition, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, 673.)
In the funeral liturgy in the book we hold in worship today, these words are appointed to be spoken after the body is laid in the grave, as earth is cast onto the coffin, or, as ashes are placed in the earth or into a columbarium.
What's in these ashes? When we hear these words and receive the ashes it is as if some of the earth and the words from our own funeral liturgy have arrived here ahead of time to speak to us, and let us feel with our own skin the earth we will be buried in.
What is in these ashes? We will soon pray the long Ash Wednesday confession of sin. That extended confession is like a reporting of a cascade of ashes that our own action and inaction have caused. The sins we will confess cover with ashes not only our own lives but the lives of our families, strangers, churches, classrooms and colleagues, our planet. What is in these ashes today? The church's tradition is to set this day aside, in part to be especially honest about the ashes of our sin.
Tomorrow I fly to Nashville and on my ascent I will break through and see what many of us have seen up there: the true color of the sky above us, and then look down to see the brown cloud of ash that we live in every day, with my flight adding even more ashes, slightly darkening the haze. In this place and in time, we often wear the "yoke"-in Isaiah's words-of a system that has given the sky an ashy tint that now often looks normal to us. The ash is all around us. Even in the air we breathe, the color of the sky.
Australia was feeling the weight of that same oppressive yoke this week, as a national day of mourning was held Sunday because large parts of their country are being turned to ash by huge wildfires fueled by climate change, and the fires are predicted to increase by more than 200% in the next decades.
What's in the ashes? It's the stuff all around us: our own mortality, the effects of our sin, the heavy yokes of the oppressive systems we're part of. It's the stuff that is burying us. And it will bury us. We are dust and to dust we shall return.
Ambrose of Milan preached to new Christians back in the fourth century something basically like, "if we could have immersed you in dirt, under the ground, for your baptism, without actually killing you, we might have tried it." (Ambrose of Milan, "Prefigurations of Baptism," in Yarnold, 117. "Because you are immersed, the sentence, 'You are dust and to dust you shall return', is served. With the sentence served there is room for the gift and the heavenly remedy, I said that water comes from the earth; the conditions of human life did not permit us to be covered by the earth and then rise again from it.")
What Ambrose was trying to get across was that our baptism into Christ's death occurs on this real earth, where the ashes of sin, frailty, and oppression do really bury us-put us under the ground.
We may see in Jesus' own death a burial in these ashes. The dead letter of the law was heaped on him by religion experts who loved to "stand and pray in worship and in public so that they may be seen by others"-"white washed tombs," Jesus called them, full of bones and ashes. Jesus faced a political system that burned anyone who seemed to threaten its own hold on power. And the fiery faith of the disciples of Jesus-and those crowds of followers-quickly turned to embers when it began to look like following Jesus may not, after all, be a way to get ahead in the world. These things buried Jesus in ashes, buried him in the earth, sealed the door of the tomb. "We would baptize you in dirt, if it wouldn't kill you," said the preacher Ambrose.
But it wasn't as if Jesus in his death was suddenly involuntarily buried in ashes. Jesus sought out through his entire ministry the people and places that were already covered in ash: when everyone else avoided people with leprosy "like the plague," afraid their own limbs might turn to ash if they got close, Jesus sought to be with the lepers and other people with infections and illnesses, and he touched them, prayed with them.
When people strategically invited rich neighbors to their banquets, carefully avoiding the poor, as if poverty were contagious and by being near to them your treasures might be consumed by moth or rust or thieves who break in and steal, in that world Jesus sought out the poor, himself becoming poor, humbling himself, taking the form of a slave, preaching good news to the poor, sometimes even using words.
And sinners (real sinners, not fairy-tale sinners, not "hookers with a heart of gold"), sinners who piled on the ashes over other peoples' lives, these real sinners made of dust and breath, Jesus sought out, got his hands dirty laying hands on them, carrying on his body their tears, writing strangely in the dirt, forgiving their sins as one with authority, even in the night in which he was betrayed there he was dipping his bread in the bowl with the betrayer.
Jesus sought out all of us human ash heaps like someone in love with ashes, with earth.
According to John, when Jesus was raised, he was even then still found among the dirt. Mary, the first witness, mistook him for a gardener. Beginning in that springtime garden at Passover, the risen Christ showed himself as one who-even on the other side of the grave-would keep faith with the ashes of the world.
The risen Christ raises up disciples from the ashes. Gives them, in the words of Paul that we heard today, "great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God... [they are treated] as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything."
The risen Christ takes living ash heaps, who are stammering confessions of sin, staggering under oppressive yokes, and aware of their own frailty... and makes them leaders of the church. [repeat] Every leader of the church who ever lived, lived a life buried in ashes, including us. But more importantly, we have been buried with Christ in baptism: buried in that earth-loving, yoke-breaking, sin-forgiving death that is life for this world and the ash heaps of all our bodies.
We may be buried in ashes: our confession is long; it is in the air we breathe; our doctors can tell us where we are all headed. But we are also buried in the One whose love for these ashes, for this earth, overwhelms us in baptism. Let this whole season of Lent and Easter be a remembrance, a renewal, of your baptism. When we are sunk in baptism, we are sunk into an unfathomable love for these ashes, for this earth-a love that is the most powerful thing we will know in this life.
The power of the resurrection now flows to the ash heaps gathered in this room. By the power of the risen Christ, we are being raised up, to serve our fellow creatures of dust and breath-and to love all these ashes as Christ loved and served them: To honor the Temple of God that is the ash of our bodies. To pray for and lay hands on the sick and dying. To forgive sins. To preach good news to the poor in word and deed. To bless children. To serve at table where Christ eats and drinks with sinners. To baptize into the mercy of Christ.
Sisters and brothers, on this day and in this season, remember that you are dust. And remember the one who goes ahead of us into the dust, is buried in it for love of this dust, and into whom we have been baptized.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21