Thursday, February 07, 2008

February 6, 2008 - Remember That You Are Dust

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." These are the words I repeat over and over again this Ash Wednesday, as I do every year. I speak them as I smear a thumbful of ashes in a cross-shaped pattern on church members' foreheads, as they come up to me during the worship service.

The imposition of ashes is a curiously intimate act. It involves a brief moment of human touch, applied to a highly sensitive area, the face. Most of us aren’t eager to have others outside our immediate family touch us on the face. There are a few exceptions: doctors, barbers, or – for women – maybe a hairdresser or makeup artist. That’s about it: other than a minister or priest, on Ash Wednesday or in the less-common rite of anointing with oil.

We Presbyterians haven't been doing this ashes thing for very long – about 15 years or so, in this congregation. In years past, most Presbyterians have shrunk from the imposition of ashes, considering it – for no good theological reason – "too Catholic." But those days are pretty much behind us. Even though we make a big deal about it being voluntary, nearly everyone comes forward, now, to receive them.

For me, the most emotionally powerful encounters involving the ashes are with the very old and the very young. When an elderly person comes up to me, and I say, "to dust you shall return," I figure both of us know that return could happen any time now. It's not an especially sad or mournful thing. It's just the way it is, the way of the world.

It's even more poignant when the person is sick – like the advanced cancer patient who came in to see me this morning, to talk about her funeral plans. Her doctor says she’s got a few months to live. She's here at the Ash Wednesday service this evening. I wonder what the ashes mean to her, this year of all years?

When young children come up – ushered forward by a parent, or perhaps even held in a parent's arms – it's something else altogether. It seems deeply wrong, almost an obscenity, to smudge ashes on such a little forehead and say "remember that you are dust." It feels, somehow, like I'm marking these youngsters for death. A powerful symbol, these ashes.

In a death-denying and sin-denying culture, to smear ashes on a person's forehead is a deeply counter-cultural act. The ashes are a reminder both of our mortality and of our tendency to sin. They're a reminder, in other words, of our creatureliness. It never ceases to amaze me how many people come up to me and ask for that reminder, then tell me afterwards how meaningful it feels to them.

This afternoon, I was in Dr. Lerner's office for my monthly port flush. Unbuttoning my shirt, I let the nurse probe around by my collarbone with a surgical-gloved finger, until she located the hard little button under my skin. Then, after smearing the area liberally with antiseptic, with a nursely combination of gentleness and firmness she swiftly plunged a needle through my skin and into the port.

I've had this done so many times, now, it's no longer troubling to me. I know the pinprick of pain will last a brief moment, and no longer.

This, too, is a reminder of my mortality – a reminder of the cancer I can't feel, but that I know is still there, somewhere within me. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."


Bryce said...

Ashes eh?
Dumb question maybe..
From where did you obtain the ash
and, how do you make sure you, the
person placing the cross don't get
covered in the stuff?

After all it is usually dirty dusty
stuff, thinking here of the dustman
taking out the ashes.

Or am I being too inquisitive?

Carl said...

We buy ours from a church-supply store, but what they are is palm leaves from Palm Sunday the year before, that have been burned and mixed with a little olive oil, so they aren't so dusty.