Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down – Ash Wednesday 2008

Ash Wednesday, Year A
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Ring around the rosies,
    pocket full of posies,
    ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
What images come to mind when you hear this nursery rhyme?
Children holding hands and dancing in a circle,
    in a front yard, neighborhood park, or living room,
    smiling and laughing as they go around and around,
        until that final downbeat – we all fall down!
    That’s the most fun part of it all, I think,
        when the children collapse to the ground en masse,
        in dramatic fashion,
            with feet flying up in the air and arms spreading wide across the ground,
            as smiles spread wide across their faces.
Yes, that’s how the game ends,
    children spread out on the ground,
    giggling and smiling while trying to recover from the dizzying dance.

Scholars disagree about the origins of this nursery rhyme.
With its apparent references to the plague,
    some argue that this game comes from the Black Death of the 14th century,
    while other historians contend that it came about only in the 19th century,
        with little real connection to the middle ages.
Regardless of when it first came into use,
    this rhyme makes a game of sickness and death.

The first line, Ring around the Rosie,
is thought to refer to a ring-like skin lesion associated with the plague.
Believing that the plague was transmitted via foul-smelling air,
    people would walk around with fragrant posies – bouquets – of herbs in their pockets –
    pocket full of posies.
Yet as people would succumb to the disease their remains would be cremated –
    turned to ashes and buried in the ground –
in hopes of stemming any further spread of the disease.
    ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Quite an odd subject for a children’s game, no?

In a few minutes we’re going to come up here, to the foot of this cross,
    and receive ashes.
I doubt many of you will spin around and dance, or giggle and laugh
as you make your way up the center aisle.
But we will fall down – figuratively, anyway,
    as we receive ashes as a sign of our mortality, our brokenness, our fragility,
    and hear some humbling words spoken to us:
Remember that you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.
That almost sounds like the fightin’ words of a schoolyard bully –
    you ain’t nothing but dirt,
        and you ain’t going to be nothing but dirt.
Just as we would want to push back against that tough-talking schoolyard bully,
    we might stand here tonight and want to push back at the church, at God, at the world:
    what do you mean I’m dirt?
Remember that you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.
These are hard words to hear,
    words that cut us down,
words that take us back to the first chapter of Genesis,
    when God forms humanity from the dirt of the earth,

words that conflict with our conflated self images
    and our frantic attempts to deny death by consuming the latest and greatest
        toys, gadgets, diet fads and medicines.
You are dust.  We are dust. 
    Whether we like it or not.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

And this is this traditional focus of Lent,
    to look back at ourselves,
    to admit our sinfulness, our brokenness,
        to confess those things that separate us from God and from one other,
        for when sin separates us from God and from one another
            we suffer the death of our wholeness, the death of our relationships,
            the death of our community, the death of our humanity.
Sin is death.
And so this season is not just about looking at the conduct of our lives
    and confessing sins in a good vs. bad, black vs. white, moralist kind of dichotomy.
No.  It’s much more than that.
If sin is death, then our confession of sin, our season of repentance, our ashes . . .
. . . is about life.

This is a season of repentance, of self-denial, of discipline
    that draws us closer, into a deeper understanding of and relationship with
        the God who denies himself for us,
        the God who gives up his life so that we would have life.
That’s what this night, that’s what this season is all about.

Repentance and self-denial, however,
    is not the prescription for everyone tonight.
There are many who do not need ashes tonight to remind them
of their mortality, their brokenness, their fragility,
for they stare it in the face, they feel it, they encounter it every single day.
For those who sleep on the streets,
    or those who nurse addictions,
or those who suffer through abusive relationships,
or those who struggle under the weight of oppressive and mounting bills –
    health insurance, mortgage, credit cards, groceries, utilities . . .
    indeed, they already know what is like to be reduced to ashes,
        to feel like nothing.
For them, these ashes tonight are less about confession and repentance and introspection,
    and are more about looking around and seeing others marked with that same cross
that they themselves carry each and every day,
            marked with humble ashes of suffering.
    When we gather here and receive our cross of ashes
in the same spot on our heads that we received the baptismal oil,
we gather under the cross, sharing a solidarity of mortality.
We all fall down.

After their environment stops spinning around them,
    and the laughter begins to subside ever so slightly,
the children get back up and play again. 
    Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies . . .
And again.  And again.
They don’t remain flat on the ground for ever, not even for long.
No.  They pull each other up off the ground, and have another go at it.

A few minutes after we receive our ashes we will have another go at it,
    pulling ourselves, pulling each other off our pews
    and having another go at our walk down this aisle.
This time, however, we’re going to receive not ashes but bread and wine,
    food for life even as we’ve been marked with death.

Reminded of our death,
    we are invited into life,
    a life in the self-giving body of Christ,
    a life with our sisters and brothers in this place and in all of Christ’s church,
        a life that spans place and time,
    a life that has no end.
Dear friends, the game doesn’t end when we all fall down,
    for falling down is just a beginning.
Dust yourselves off, let your neighbor grab your hand and pull you up, and come.
Come, all of you, come together and dance and spin up this aisle,
    for as Paul tells us in tonight’s second reading,
now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.
So come.
Come and face death,
come and receive life,
    come and be the living Body of Christ.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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