A photo arrived in this morning’s inbox from last night’s Ash Wednesday service ”a picture of me making the sign of the cross in ashes on the forehead of my 17-year-old daughter.
Remember you are dust, and to the dust you will return, we say as the ashes are smudged onto the faces of congregants young and old and all points in between. The words come from Genesis, where God speaks to Adam and Eve about the finitude of human life.
We’re not real keen on talking about dying in our culture, or even within the church for that matter, where honesty and hope are supposed to be high values. In a youth-obsessed culture, Ash Wednesday is countercultural, reminding us of that which we most avoid: Our time on this earth is limited, far shorter than we can fully grasp. Before we know it, perhaps when we least expect it, someone will call us off the stage and our time will be up.
The photo brings this realization home in a unique way.
Is that me? When did I get gray and wrinkly? How many years have I been doing this? And am I getting paranoid, or are my ears getting longer?
I look at the dear face of my daughter as she receives the ashes. She’s pictured in a sweatshirt from one of the colleges she hopes to attend. In just a few months she’ll be gone. Is this the last Ash Wednesday service she will attend with me?
On the wrist of the hand I use to make the sign of the cross is the rubber bracelet I wear all the time. It was taken by the coroner from the body of my son who died almost two years ago at age 25.
Dust you are, and to the dust you will return.
For some, death is all there is. With no proof of anything more, many good people find it unsophisticated and unscientific to affirm more than can be mathematically calculated or empirically explained. They’re right. From the vantagepoint of reason alone there is no proof.
Others hold on to the mystery of More. Dust you are, and to the dust you will return is true, but it is not the last word, they say. There is another world, another realm. We cannot measure it, but we can glimpse it through portals of love, beauty, music and the words of countless generations whose sight was not confined to the limits of science.
The late John Updike, one of our keenest observers of life, told an interviewer a few years before his death: “I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and women spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can’t quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, `This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.'”
Faith or unfaith, we all agree: Remember you are dust, and to the dust you will return. As George Bernard Shaw noted, The ultimate statistic is that one out of one of us will die.
It is sobering beyond words to stand before the congregation at the conclusion of the Ash Wednesday ritual and gaze upon the holocaust scene of a sanctuary filled with people you love, all bearing the mark of death on their foreheads. Every ashen cross represents a funeral at some future date.
The question is: What then? Is there More? Is there Something Else at work that simply falls outside the purview of the good gifts of science?
I say yes.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and a board director for the Baptist Center for Ethics.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.