The Reverend Elizabeth Kaeton reflects on Ash Wednesday
Some of you know this child’s song. It sounds so innocent, at first blush.
“Ring around a rosey/pocket full of poesy/ashes/ashes/we all fall down.”
I don’t know if you know the origin of this song, but a quick search on “Google” gives me confidence to say with some certainty, if not blatant authority, that the following is so.
This is a nursery rhyme about the bubonic plague known as the Black Death. "Ring around a rosey" refers to a pinkish circle that would form on a victim’s body prior to turning black. Medical thought at the time was that flowers or posies would purify the air of its bad humors. "Ashes, ashes" refers to burning those things that belonged to a person that had died of the plague. "We all fall down" relates to what most folk experienced if they fell victim to the bubonic plague — death.
Interesting, isn’t it, how children have a way of cutting through the niceties and getting through the truth of things? I’m especially struck, on this day, by the last phrase of that innocent-sounding ditty: “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
This is the essence of Ash Wednesday: Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. This is why, contrary to what we just heard in the gospel of St. Matthew, we wear a mark of ashes on our foreheads today. Actually, St. Matthew was quite angry with the religious leaders of his day. He was referring to the practice at that time in antiquity to show grief by tearing (or ‘rending’) garments and covering one’s head with ashes. He was poking fun at the religious leaders and their penchant for making a public show of everything from grief to generosity, to prayer.
Ashes, in antiquity, were a sign of grief, mourning, humiliation and penitence. When Job loses everything, he sits among the ashes. Cursed and overrun by enemies, the Psalmist "eats ashes like bread, and mingles tears with drink." Ashes are what are left after destruction. One of the startling lessons of September 11th is that, after chaos or catastrophe, ashes are what remain.
Our columbarium attests to the fact that ashes are what is left of our mortal beings after death. It is humbling, if not absolutely daunting, every time I receive a box of the cremains of a person I once knew, to contemplate the life of one I loved and cherished to be reduced to a container of ashes which I hold in my hands. I confess that this thought crosses my mind, “So, in the end, it comes down to this: We are all reduced to the cruel truth of a children’s nursery rhyme, born of the attempt to deal with the horror of the chaos and catastrophe of the Black Plague. ‘Ashes, ashes, we all fall down’”
Ash Wednesday calls us to consider our mortality. Indeed, we all fall down. Death is a certainty of life. There is yet another perspective of this phrase. “We all fall down” calls us not only to consider the limits of our mortality, but also to ponder the confines of our humanity. Lent is a time to take into account how it is that ‘we all fall down’ on our baptismal promises; on the values and principles we say we hold dear; on the authenticity and integrity of our true selves.
I bid you, as we begin this Holy Season of Lent, to consider the wisdom you once knew as a child. I bid you to contemplate the limits of your own mortality, and reflect not only on your sins and shortcomings, but, also, on the worth of your life.
Yes, wear the mark of the ashes on your forehead (yes, please do that), but not as a sign to tell the world that you have been to church today, for if that is your purpose in being here, then, as scripture says, surely, you have received your reward.
Rather, I urge you to wear these ashes as a call to consider what you want to do with whatever span of years remain in your life. How is it that you will make the gift of your life count?
What is it you want said of what you have done with your life? What is the legacy you want to leave your family? Your children? Your grandchildren? Your great-grandchildren? Your community? Your church?
Lent is not so much about gloom and doom as it is about exploring what it is in our lives that we have banished to the shadows. Lent is about looking into the shades of gray in our lives, facing into our own short comings, sifting through the ashes, weighing what of value in our lives and choosing to live a life of integrity and authenticity.
Lent is not a season to be merely tolerated and gotten through. It is an opportunity to learn how it is that God is present in the brokenness of our lives, making us whole. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Lent is about the wholeness and holiness of life. It’s about learning to cut through the niceties and getting through to the truth of things.
Mostly, Lent is about is about rediscovering what we once knew as children. One of the secrets of a life fully lived is this: Life's not about waiting for the storm to pass; it's about learning to dance in the rain.