“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
We gather tonight to do something with deep, historical roots in our Scriptures and tradition. In the Book of Esther, when Mordecai learns of the king’s decree to kill all the Jewish people in the Persian Empire he dons a garment woven from a course fabric known as sackcloth and covers himself in ashes. Both are visible signs of his deep mourning, awareness of mortality, and heartfelt repentance. After Jonah proclaims God is going to destroy the city of Nineveh, its king and citizens repent with sackcloth and ashes and are spared.
Jesus, aware of this tradition, told skeptics that if the gentile towns of Tyre and Sidon (located in modern day Lebanon) had witnessed his miracles and heard his message, they would have put on sackcloth and ashes and reformed their ways. Tertullian, a second century leader in the early church, directed penitents to “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.”
By the eighth century, a dying person was placed on a piece of ground covered with sackcloth and then sprinkled with ashes. As the priest blessed the dying person he said, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” The priest then asked, “Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord on the day of judgments?” The dying person answered, “I am content.”
We have a copy of a sermon by the Anglo-Saxon priest Aelfric dating to around the year 1,000. In it he connects this ancient tradition with tonight’s liturgical moment, saying, “Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we skew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” And as a warning to those who snubbed his counsel, Aelfric goes on to tell the story of a man who refused to attend Ash Wednesday services and therefore did not receive ashes, who then was killed by a wild boar a few days later.
All of this talk of dust has its beginning in the beginning. After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and God finds them hiding, God punishes first the serpent, then the woman, and finally the man. God’s last words to Adam are these:
“By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
As we gather tonight we are doing something profoundly counter-cultural. We enact a ritual born of their wisdom of hundreds of generations before us. We come together to acknowledge our brokenness, our regret, and our mortality. And we believe by doing so two things happen. First, we believe it helps us to amend our lives so that we can be rightly aligned with the realities of our mortal nature. And second, we believe our actions are pleasing to God.
A boy attends an Ash Wednesday service with his family. That night, as his mother is putting him to bed, he asks her, “Is it true we are made of dust?” “Yes, darling,” she answers. “And do we really turn back to dust again when we die?” he inquires. “That’s right, dear.” “Well, earlier today I was playing in my room and don’t look now,” he whispers, “cuz I’m not sure if he is coming or going, but someone is under my bed.” Tonight I am aware of how differently I receive the Ash Wednesday proclamation as I live closer to my dusty ending than my dusty beginning.
In the 1990’s, economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald set out to determine the relationship between work and happiness. Their international study turned up something quite unexpected: a recurring pattern in every society. They learned that people in their twenties reported the highest levels of happiness, but satisfaction with life begins a steady decline in the 30s, through the 40s, and into the early 50s. The lowest levels of happiness bottom out at this point and then steadily increase (on average) as a person moves through the mid and late 50s and into the 60’s. It may surprise you to learn that people in their 70s report levels of happiness and satisfaction comparable to or better than that experienced by people in their 20s. These findings, reinforced by subsequent studies, are now described as the U-Shaped Curve of Happiness.
Think about why this is. Our whole life lies ahead of us when we are in our 20s. The world is full of possibilities. We are young and strong and optimistic and free. Setbacks are little more than an opportunity to start over, to begin a new and more promising adventure. We take on responsibilities such as marriage and parenting in our 30’s, which come with both blessings and challenges. People in their 30s work harder for less pay than at any other time in life. In our 40s we must manage teenagers, stale marriages, aging parents, declining personal energy, and a sense of being stymied at work. It is at this point we begin to ask of life “is this all there is?” It is the age of the classic mid-life crisis. And it is no coincidence, I think, that George Orwell was 40 when he wrote: “Any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” He died six years later.
Somewhere in our mid-50’s, with our children either grown or off to college, our marriages either over or re-invigorated, and with an emerging awareness that all our years of work have paved the way for a good life, we look around and realize where we are, what we have, what we do, and who we are with is not so bad after all. We come to feel everything has worked out OK and we will be fine.
One person, reflecting on this phase, writes:
What really changes as we hit 50? Perhaps most importantly, our time horizon changes. I’m not sure when my career will end, but I know I can see it from here. This means my goals change. I want to do something significant, but I’m realistic, circumspect, about what that might be. I cannot pretend the possibilities are infinite; the constraints are obvious, with ‘time’ at the top of the list.
To me, this person sounds like he or she is coming to grips with the realities of brokenness and mortality and is better for it.
From this point forward, well into our 70s and beyond, we become wiser, which is defined as growing in “compassion and empathy, social reasoning and decision making, equanimity, tolerance of divergent values, and comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity.” All in all, we become more satisfied with life, calmer, and more grateful. We experience every new day as a blessing.
Reflecting on where he is and who he is in this phase of life, the religion writer Arthur Farnsley II writes:
My definition of “significance” has changed... I have a clearer sense of what matters to me, of whose opinions matter to me.
Finite time constraints and a clearer sense of values combine to offer the greatest gift of all: an improved ability to live in the present. At a certain age, you realize that clinging to past mistakes is futile. Even better, you stop yearning for some ideal future because experience teaches us the ideal is probably not forthcoming.
All of this is to say our experience of the ashes changes as we age. In our youth it is something most of us most likely received with a healthy dose of denial; believing we can do anything and will live forever. As we head to the bottom of the U-Curve it is something we experienced with a deep sense of dread because it reinforces the feeling nothing works out as it should. But moving forward from there, we receive the ashes as a message of life. Once we stop denying we are broken and mortal, and once we stop fighting it, and once we give up being depressed about it, only when we learn to embrace it do we find we are liberated by it.
As I worked on this sermon yesterday, the women of the Suffolk Garden Club held a lunch in our Parish Hall followed by a 75-slide PowerPoint presentation on succulents (of all things!). A person in her teens or 20s would have felt she was being held hostage at such an event, texting friends constantly about how she was losing her mind. A person in her 30s or 40s would try to have a nice time and pay attention, but in this brief, rare, quiet moment, all she really could do is think about the overwhelming demands on her time once she leaves. But, from the sound of it, those ladies, all 55 and older, were having a grand time doing something that adds only joy and goodness to their day… and they were satisfied.
Where are you in life and what do the ashes say to you this night? I hope they speak to you of the limited nature of time. I hope they motivate you to determine what matters most to you and help you to focus your energies on those things. I hope the ashes empower you to let go of those things you no longer need to carry on your journey. I hope they invite you to come before God with your sorrows and regrets; that they witness to God’s deep, unfathomable, unshakeable love for you, and remind you God bids you to let go of the burdens you bring in order to be new and whole again. And finally, I hope the ashes give you hope that the best is yet to come, not only in this life, but also in the life to come.