The following homily was offered at Yorkminster Park's 2010 Ash Wednesday service. We will be gathering again for a very reflective and moving service in the Chapel this Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
From Dust You Have Come...
A few years ago on our Lenten Pilgrimage of Sacred Spaces we visited Toronto's St. Michael's Roman Catholic Cathedral on Ash Wednesday, where at the last minute Father Damian asked me to assist him in the imposition of ashes on the Baptist pilgrims. In a sense it is a sign of how far we have come ecumenically. Centuries ago our forebears were staring each other down as enemies at the Inquisition, but now we stood humbly and appreciatively side by side as brothers for the Imposition of something so sacred. I hadn't done it before and so as Father Damian instructed me I was taken aback at the thought of saying what he told me to say as I placed the mark of the cross on the foreheads of my own people - people I love and respect. "From dust you have come. To dust you shall return." What a thing to say!
I am often asked to offer a blessing whether it be a closing prayer at a meeting or grace at a meal, but I could never imagine saying, "From dust you have come to dust you shall return." It sounds almost like the song they play over the loudspeakers taunting the visiting team as the seconds in the game count down and the home team has victory safely won. 'Another one bites the dust.."
But no one is being taunted on Ash Wednesday because the song is for everyone whether you are on the home team or not, whether you are among the faithful or not. The word is for all of us, but it doesn't sound like a blessing. The word used is imposition. It is far more imposition than blessing.
First of all, we don't know that Jesus ever said this to anyone, "From ahes you have come, to ashes you shall return," but we do know that in the creation account in Genesis 2: 7, we read, "The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground." And so it is when as ministers we offer the words of committal at a graveside we often say, "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."
It is one thing to acknowledge mortality at a graveside, but when people come to church longing for a blessing do we dare offer ashes? In the Bible when people turned from their sin and repented they often wore sackcloth and covered their heads in ashes - sackcloth as a sign that they were removing all pretense, and ashes as a sign that they were acknowledging their mortality. It was an outward sign of penance, sobriety, humility, and perspective.
Jesus probably didn't say, "From dust you have come," but he said a lot of things which provide commentary on those words. He said, "Don't store up treasures here on earth where moths eat them and rust destroys them and thieves break in and steal." Rust to rust - dust to dust. "Instead," Jesus said, "Store up for yourselves, treasures in heaven." Jesus was saying to his own followers, You are going to die so invest your lives in things of eternal value.
In Luke 12 someone whose own brother was not sharing his father's inheritance fairly came to him and said, "Tell my brother to give me what is mine." The death of their father had not sobered the brothers to the point where they could gain enough perspective to say, 'Since we can't take it with us, let's not divide the family over it.' And so Jesus warned them about greed and then told them a parable about a rich man whose harvest was so great that his barns weren't big enough, and then it dawned on him that he could build bigger barns and store enough food to keep him for years and years and he wouldn't have to work so hard. He could take it easy. And so he went ahead and started the project, but God came to him in the night and said, "You fool. This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" The young man who came to Jesus didn't see it coming. It was almost as if Jesus had said to him, "From dust you have come, to dust you shall return."
Five years ago Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple and McIntosh gave the commencement address at Stanford University in California. Behind the graduating class you can see empty bleachers, but thanks to the internet and you tube the speech has since been viewed by millions of people. It was a brilliant speech and when I was reflecting on what to say this evening my mind went back to it because it seemed to me there was something there.
In his address Jobs said, "When I was seventeen I read a quote which went, "If you live each day as if it were your last, one day you will most certainly be right." Now if you only read the speech you won't pick up what happened next. Do you know what the students and others in the audience did when Steve Jobs said those words? "If you live each day as if it were your last, one day you will most certainly be right." They laughed. They were young and successful and about to graduate from one of the greatest universities in the world and so when Steve Jobs spoke about death they laughed. They thought it was a joke.
Steve Jobs didn't laugh. Instead he said, "Those words made an impression on me. And since then for the past thirty-three years I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, "If today were the last day of my life would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been, 'No.' for too many days in a row, I know its time to change something. Steve Jobs continued,
"Remembering that I will be dead soon is the most important tool I have ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know of avoiding the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
A year ago I was diagnosed with cancer - pancreatic - almost certainly incurable 3 to 6 months. My doctor advised me to Go home and get your affairs in order which is Doctor's code 'prepare to die,' Try and tell your kids everything you thought you would have the next ten years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so it will be as easy as possible for your family.
NO one wants to die... yet death is the destination we all share. No one has escaped it. Now the new is you. Some day not too long from now they will clear you out to make way for the new."
The truth is I wasn't very good at the imposition of ashes the first time I was called on to do it at St. Michael's Cathedral. I hadn't practiced and it looked more like a big smudge on the foreheads of the faithful, while in contrast Father Damian's imprint could have been a designer label. As we travelled back on the subway I looked at some of the folk who had received the imposition from me and I realized for the first time what an imposition it truly was. I felt sorry for them.
However, it was later that evening when I looked up while brushing my teeth and encountered the ashes on my own forehead that I almost fainted. I had forgotten but there it was - the very mark of death. As I stood there in shock the question Steve Jobs asks every morning in front of the mirror came to me in with late edition edits, "If today was the last day of my life would I be happy with what I did and said today?" And then something else Father Damian had said during the imposition came to me loud and clear, "Repent and believe the Gospel!"