Sermon preached by Jacques Jimenez, Vestry Member
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Ash Wednesday – February 22, 2012
When the celebrant puts a smear of ash on your forehead in a few minutes, he or she will say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
In saying this, the celebrant will be quoting verbatim something that the great, solemn author known as Ecclesiastes wrote during a moment of particularly clear sobriety, in that odd little book of his that nests like a mouse in among the bigger books of the Old Testament. This is the only time in the church year that the liturgy quotes this author, as far as I know; and it does so with a bluntness and starkness that is very much like his own, and quite unlike the rather more gentle and nuanced manner we usually adopt as good Episcopalians. If you haven’t done it recently, read the book of Ecclesiastes to get quite a different perspective on Lent than is usually promoted in our churches except by these ashes on this one day.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
As a kid, I always thought the ashes were neat – a smudge on your forehead that shouted to everybody everywhere you went that you had been mysteriously re-branded, and you wanted everybody to know about it.
We used to see how long we could keep the smudge intact despite being sent off by fussy parents to the showers to scrub it off – and they shouted after you, “ Don’t get any of it on the new chairs.” The ashes were a small part of the never-ending tug-of-war between the generations. Ashes were cool.
“Wash that off!”
“No, I don’t have to! Sister said it’ll come off by itself.”
Then there were the jokes only a kid could find hilarious: “Mommy, is it true that we are dust and unto dust we shall return?” “Yes, dear.” “Well, you’d better look under the bed because someone down there’s either coming or going.”
But always, even back then, there was old Ecclesiastes, with his magnificent cadences, his relentless grown-up honesty, his uncompromised opposition to any illusion that would make life lighter than it actually is, his simple acknowledgement of death as the end of everything and everybody – remember, remember, remember. This is no joke.
So, the heavens that Ecclesiastes looks up to are populated only by what he can actually see with his eyes, that is, the sun and the moon and the stars that rise, circle and set endlessly but to no clear purpose. He does not see a great gleaming New Jerusalem up there populated with “all the saints who from their labors rest.” Nor does he see or hear “a multitude of the heavenly host singing Hosanna in the highest.” He lives in no mighty fortresses. For him, there is no golden city behind the sky, no life beyond the grave; there is nothing but endless turnings of time for us to wiggle our little lives in before we die.
That may seem grim, but at the same time there is no punishment in death for him, no Judgment Seat to stand before and no perilous journey across dark waters to find the final reward. All the religions around him – from Egypt, from Babylon, from Greece – struggle with judgment, the afterlife, and some form of heaven and hell – some system of paying off the gods for our failures in this life. But Ecclesiastes is untouched by the speculations of religion and philosophy, he is innocent of all doctrine, and he is content to remain so: “In much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Forget the immortality of the soul and all of the machinery of sin and salvation, crime and punishment, law and guilt. Nothing at all about an afterlife. This is it. Here. Now.
The brute fact of death is here for the rich as much as for the poor, for the powerful as for the disenfranchised, the brave and cowardly both, man and woman both, liberal and conservative, teen-ager and CEO, grasses and orchids, lions and pussycats, the salmon and the minnow, the eagle and the bumble bee. Everything from ashes, everything back to ashes, and these ashes don’t wash off.
If we think about it, as Ecclesiastes certainly did, the blunt stark simple recognition of death frees us to live in the here and now without regrets, preconceptions, rationalizations, projections, evasions, expectations, without hope and equally without despair. Free of that baggage. Rather, we are thrown back on the small delights that are close to hand: the bread on your own table, the wine in your own glass, and the natural joy that bubbles up in your living soul even when things are dark. “Eat, drink and be merry.” “For this also is from God, and is good.”
Lent takes us to Holy Week with all of the theater of salvation that goes on there. At that end of Lent, things get complicated and very much tied up with the bewildering equations of sin and redemption. But that’s for later in the season, even though they’ve squeezed a lot of that perspective into tonight’s service as well. But right now we are only at the threshold of Lent, and this spot belongs above all to the Ecclesiastes who remembered the ashes and wrote: “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This I also saw, that it was from the hand of God.”
So, let’s not jump ahead too fast to the complicated narratives and elegant symbols and the swirling themes of Holy Week. Let’s linger with Ecclesiastes a while and make sure that the human being who is now living in your skin and who now answers to your name and whose brow will be sporting a smudge of ashes in a few minutes – make sure that that person – who is yourself, after all – remembers. And, remembering, cherishes. And cherishing, celebrates.
Remember that the dust, too, is from God.