Monday, July 21, 2014

Ashes, Ashes

Good Shepherd, Berkeley 3/5/14
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 51• 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10  • Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
                                        The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near-
A time of darkness, a time of gloom and clouds, a time of mystery is foretold.              A time of moving into a wilderness of darkness. In Lent we all begin to wander through our personal wilderness, our own trail of ashes. It may well seem dark. And it all begins now, on Ash Wednesday.
On this very day, we are asked to consider the starkest, and the darkest of realities: remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Today I took a dried bunch of palms from last Palm Sunday, and, as tradition dictates, I burned them and pounded them into powder. I watched the flame rise and saw with satisfaction how completely the dried leaves were consumed with flame, how quickly and efficiently the ashes were produced. As I looked at them I thought of the human ashes I have seen, and how true it is- we do all return to the dust.
As a clergy person I probably have had more experiences with ashes than most. I have noted that the ashes from a really large person were, to my surprise, heavier than those of a normal sized person. I have seen a mother cry as she held the box of her daughter’s ashes saying, “She was so much bigger than this!” Over and over again, I have seen people who prefer to keep the ashes of their loved one on their mantel or on their bedside table, unable to part with them for a more conventional resting place.
I have been schooled in the handing of ashes- human and palm-sourced. I was taught that you open the container of Ash Wednesday ashes slowly, so as to avoid a cloud of ash erupting in your face, creating unintended comic effect.
I was taught that when you are going to bury human ashes, never to just pour them out from the mortuary container as, once again, you will raise a dust cloud with, this time, an unintended horrific effect.
I had my mother’s ashes for a long time, as no one knew what to do with them, so I had the chance to take a peek. To my surprise, I got the soothing impression of tiny seashells and course sand on a white beach. Very peaceful.
I never saw my father’s ashes, but I had to preach about them, as it was the only way to honor his scientific cynicism and still preach resurrection. I said that although my father did not believe in God, he would have passionately believed that the carbonates and calcium phosphates and the trace elements of iron, magnesium and copper in his ashes would eventually bond with the organic elements of the soil he loved so well (he was a soil scientist) and in the fullness of time, new life would emerge. And so it is with all of us.
It is science again, and not romance, that teaches us that we are indeed such stuff as stars are made of. The composition of most stars after all, is mostly hydrogen and helium, about the same as the composition of our bodies. We are such stuff as not only dreams, but stars are made of. And we will always be, whatever we believe our spirits will do after death.
The ashes with which you are about to be blessed are composed of the palms we carried in procession last Palm Sunday, and the ashes of the old bulletins that were incinerated in our church fire a little over a year ago. Both the palm ashes and the paper ash contain calcium carbonates, and trace elements of metals, just as human ashes do.
We are anointed today with our mortality, blessed with the reminder that this life is precious, fleeting, and most of all temporary. With the knowledge of this deep in our hearts, we are poised for our Lenten journey. With whatever precious time we have left, what are we to do? How can we better discern God’s will for us? How can we decipher the mysterious, powerful and transformative teachings of Jesus? And what trace, what palimpsest of love, or lack thereof, will remain, after our spirit has left us?

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