I’m a big fan of Google doodles (Doctor Who 50th Anniversary doodle, anyone?), and an even bigger fan of This American Life, so I was pretty happy about the US Valentine’s Day doodle this year, featuring six illustrated TAL snippets telling stories about love.
Some of said snippets were sweet and funny, but one, titled “4EVER YOURS,” had me crying into my morning coffee (TAL can do that). The story begins with a man talking about his wedding. He talks about the exhilaration of the wedding weekend, and the shift back to everyday life, on a rainy Monday when all the wedding guests were leaving and his new husband was getting ready to go to work. He says, “I just got very sad and started to cry.” After the rush of wedding excitement “came the crash…thinking, this will end someday… This will end.”
The first speaker trails off, his voice shaking, and his husband picks up: “I thought, yes my dear, that’s true. One of us will die, and then the other will die, and it will be over. But…We have now.”
And the story ends. Ugh, it’s so beautiful.
Today is Ash Wednesday. One of the things I dearly love about the Episcopal Church is the way the marking of the church year is such an integral part of worship, with Ash Wednesday as no exception. There is a special liturgy for Ash Wednesday, with its stark and beautiful prayers and its litany of penitence.
Before ashes are imposed, there’s a place in the service where everyone kneels. At my parish, because of the awkwardness of the chair/kneeler setup in the chancel (the part at the front of the church), it’s pretty rare for the whole of the choir and clergy to kneel—we usually stand—but here, everyone goes down to the kneelers or, if there’s no chair in front of you and your knees can take it, the floor.
The priest reads a prayer: “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Then it’s time to go forward to receive the dark cross of ashes reminding us of our frail and feeble mortality. The person administering the ashes says,
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I remember watching A Walk to Remember with my best friend pretty soon after she’d gotten engaged. “This is a terrible movie. I’m never watching it again,” she said, and as far as I know she hasn’t. It hit too close to home for her, the thought that the one she loved could (and someday would) die. I teased her about it at the time, but a couple months ago, I dreamed that my own fiancé had died, and cried so hard in sleep that I woke myself up. It was sad and disorienting and I’m glad it’s he and not I who has prophetic dreams—and I got it. I understood the rejection of a loved one’s mortality that can make a fiction feel just too real.
Ash Wednesday is a reminder of mortality, as everyone—senior citizens and newborns alike—is reminded of an impending return to dust and ash. It is a reminder of human frailty, of mistakes and failings.
That isn’t all Ash Wednesday is about, though. It’s not all dust-to-dust doom-and-gloom. That reminder of mortality comes as part of an invitation to “the observance of a holy Lent,” a time of penitence and self-examination, but far from a time of hopelessness.
Before coming to the Episcopal Church, I had another moving Ash Wednesday experience in the Calvin College chapel. The words used were different—enter the wilderness; enter abundance—but the spirit was the same. Lent is a stark liturgical season, and it can stand for those wilderness times we all encounter. It is, though, a road that leads to Easter, an invitation to what it abundant and real. We are dust, and to dust we shall return—but we have now. Remember John 10: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
So, today, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but also remember that you are deeply loved and fully forgiven in Christ, that even in wilderness there is abundance.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.