The Day the Ashes Were Turned into Water

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We are drowning in a sea of lies, but the ocean has a way of caring for itself. Without exception, all life is part of the Ocean. If it seems strange to be talking about water on Ash Wednesday, perhaps a memory will bring water and ashes together for you, as it did for me.

The Ash Wednesday I’m remembering, I robed 20 minutes or so before the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday. There was plenty of time. I went to fetch the the little ZipLock bag of ashes. I’d forgotten that the credenza where I’d always stored the ashes had been moved from my office to the church basement. I rushed to the basement to where the credenza had re-located. There was no credenza. Finally it dawned me that the credenza had been sold at for a couple of bucks at the annual festival-flea market last fall.

“Somebody has my ashes,” I thought, “and they’ll probably treat them like dirt! Or maybe they’ll freak out, thinking the ashes are somebody’s cremains!”

What to do? Burn some newspapers! Smoke a cigar! No time for that. There would be no imposition of ashes. No outward, visible sign that we are dust and we return to the dust — the thing we never want hear. It was then that the missing ashes were turned into water.

We filled the baptismal font with water and marked each worshiper with the waters of baptism. “[Carol, Bob, Judi, Clyde], you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

The last worshiper to leave that Ash Wednesday Service offered to do for me what had been done for her.

“Gordon,” she said, marking my forehead with water, “you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

Like the miracle at Cana where water was turned into wine at a wedding, the turning of ashes into water became an unexpected moment of joy in the communion of saints.

Today, when we feel overwhelmed by a sea of lies, remember that everything empties in the Ocean. I wish you an Ash Wednesday when your ashes are turned to water, and a few drops of the vast Ocean wash away what you’ve lost and welcome you home for a sacred communion.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Chaska, MN.

Photograph is the baptistery in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Monza, Italy, uploaded from Wikipedia.

The Level Playing Field: Ash Wednesday

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Today levels the playing field. Our differences make no difference today.  What you have become is beside the point today. All the quarrels and distinctions are beside the point. Ash Wednesday is the leveler. The eraser. The antidote. The reminder that we are mortal. That I am living my death as you are living yours and dying my life while you are dying yours. Today, the roosters comb their heads with ashes and stop crowing.

Roosters strutting and crowing in the barnyard

If it often seems that the roosters are in charge of the barnyard, today reminds them and us that, in the end, they are not. Neither are we. Ash Wednesday levels us all to the baseline of zero. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” No matter whether you’ve crowed or cowered, no matter the story you tell yourself about yourself in comparison to others, you are no exception. Every reason for pride or self-loathing, and division, is erased by a pencil bigger than our mortal selves.

Whether our stories are re-written by a better Author will continue to be one more matter of dispute and division, but there can be no reasonable doubt about our mortality. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In the meantime, before the roosters stop strutting and crowing and all the cock combs fall to the leveling plain, those who see the face of God in the compassion of Jesus remember the ethic appropriate to those still living in the barnyard:

“As they were arguing over who was the greatest, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The roosters strut and crow, and you think you are dependent on them. Don’t be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves.”– (Luke 22: 24-26, GCS translation)

Today, I offer my forehead for the imposition of ashes and pray that in the citadels of power someone else will do the same, for the sake of life itself.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2018.

Two Little Boys with Matches

Happy Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday.

Remember when you used to play with matches and your mother told you not to? Remember when you aimed a toy gun at a friend and your father told you not to?

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Maybe not.

Maybe the adults in your home never told you “No”. In that case, you may understand what it might have been like growing up as a child who would lead the United States or North Korea, playing with the bigger matches that can light the fuses of nuclear holocaust on Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday.

Saint Valentine’s Day celebrates love; Ash Wednesday observes our mortal nature. Love and death are side by side on February 14, 2018 when wine and chocolates coalesce with dust and ashes.

Is it too much to hope today that two adult boys with matches will be parented by nations that impose the discipline they lacked as little boys? Is it too much to pray they put away the “sticks and stones” they throw across the Pacific Ocean, burn their match sticks into ashes before they burn the house down, and send each other a Happy Valentine’s Day card and some chocolates?

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Ash Wednesday ashes and Saint Valentine’s Day chocolates

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Ash Wednesday and Saint Valentine’s Day, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2018.

 

 

 

Addition by Subtraction: Leveling the Playing Field

Today levels the playing field. Our differences make no difference today.  Whether you are religious, agnostic or atheist is beside the point today. All the quarrels and distinctions are beside the point.

“One is still what one is going to cease to be,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea, “and already what one is going to become. One lives one’s death. One dies one’s life.”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the leveler. The eraser. The reminder that we are mortal. That I am living my death as you are living yours and dying my life while you are dying yours.

This year more close friends and classmates are closer to dust and ashes. As I ponder the meaning of it all, my appreciation of the religion into which I was born increases. “I have always said that often the religion you were born with becomes more important to you as you see the universality of truth.” — Ram Dass. Born into and raised in the Christian faith has led me to the universality of truth.  Today the church’s practice reduces the size of my ego. Ash Wednesday levels me to a universal truth: the baseline of zero.

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Ash Wednesday ashes

The imposition of ashes — “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” — is the reminder of the universal truth of our shared mortality.  Wisdom embraces the math of addition by subtraction: the erasure of every source of hubris and division. Today, I will offer my forehead for the imposition of ashes and pray that in the citadels of power someone else will experience the same, for the sake of life itself.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2018.

The Most Real Day

Today strips away every illusion. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” Other days we avoid it like the plague, but it is our mortal truth. We die. Without exception.

It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, when many Christians offer our foreheads for “the imposition of ashes” as the beginning of everything that the is truthful.  Perhaps the term “imposition” is chosen because the recognition of our mortality and ultimate dependence rarely comes willingly, although it is the most “natural” of all cognitive recognitions.

We all run from death, but we never outrun it, leaving us to ponder on our most real day.

“Whatever lies on the other side of my years is beyond my mortal knowing. But I can and do affirm the eternity of God and the scriptural point of view that whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord, ‘All flesh is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God (YHWH, the eternal) shall last forever.’ Right now, that’s enough bread to live on today. . . . ”

– Excerpt from “When the Breath Flies Away,” Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p. 64, now available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Today, I wish you a most real day. . . beyond exceptionalism.  It’s the beginning of all joy and personal responsibility.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, trying to get real, Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Chaska, MN.

Somebody has my ashes!

Views from the Edge

It’s Ash Wednesday. I put on my ministerial robe 15 minutes before the traditional Service that marks the beginning of Lent with the imposition of ashes and go the drawer of the credenza.

Ash Wednesday“They’re missing! Where are the ashes?!” 

Every year I store the ashes in the credenza in my office. I’ve forgotten that we’d moved the credenza from my office last fall. I rush downstairs to look for it. No credenza anywhere. Then…I remember. We sold it at the Annual Fall Festival!

“Somebody has our ashes!”

What to do with no ashes? Burn some newspapers? Smoke a cigar and use the ashes? No time.

I grab a pitcher and pour water into the baptism font.

We begin the Service with the story of the missing ashes. Smiles break out everywhere. Maybe even with signs of relief. “Instead of the imposition of ashes this year, we will go to the…

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Somebody has my ashes!

It’s Ash Wednesday. I put on my ministerial robe 15 minutes before the traditional Service that marks the beginning of Lent with the imposition of ashes and go the drawer of the credenza.

Ash Wednesday“They’re missing! Where are the ashes?!” 

Every year I store the ashes in the credenza in my office. I’ve forgotten that we’d moved the credenza from my office last fall. I rush downstairs to look for it. No credenza anywhere. Then…I remember. We sold it at the Annual Fall Festival!

“Somebody has our ashes!”

What to do with no ashes? Burn some newspapers? Smoke a cigar and use the ashes? No time.

I grab a pitcher and pour water into the baptism font.

We begin the Service with the story of the missing ashes. Smiles break out everywhere. Maybe even with signs of relief. “Instead of the imposition of ashes this year, we will go to the font for the waters of baptism, the waters of the renewal of life.”

We have some fun justifying the change in the Service, focusing on the that part of the Gospel text for the day – the words of Jesus himself. “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen my others….But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret…”(Mt. 6:16-18).

People come to the font, one-by-one, for “the Imposition of … [Water]”. I dip my hand into the font. “Pat, (making the sign of the cross on her forehead), “Dust to dust; ashes to ashes. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You are a child of God. Live in this peace.”

After the Service is over, one of the worshipers asks whether anyone has done the same for me. She reaches her hand into the font. “Gordon, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Remember…You are a child of God…..”

I’ll never forget it. Neither will they. And somewhere in this world a stranger has a credenza with a sack full of ashes. Whoever you are, feel free to keep them. They’re all yours.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 10, 2016 – a memoir from 2012 at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN

 

The Most Honest Day

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The words of Ash Wednesday jar us to a sudden stop.

It may be the most honest day of the Christian liturgical calendar, the day our daily denial of death is called out from the shadows of species-illusion and self-delusion that tells us, “You will not die.”

Who is the ‘you’ that is dust (of the earth) and will return to dust?

We think the body will die. But not the “I”. Not the “you”. Only matter, not spirit, not my soul. The imposition of ashes says differently. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The ashes are “imposed” on the forehead in the sign of the cross. In those few seconds I stand before the mirror of my mortal reality more humbly, jarred, but somehow strangely comforted, that I – and all things natural, human and otherwise – are dust, and that it is as it should be, if only we understood and gave thanks for today.

Verse – Ash Wednesday

The palms had been saved for 11 months,
then burned to ashes. Thin tapers all lay
like kindling near the Christ candle. Our mouths
moved silently reciting sins. Today
we wear a black plus on foreheads:
it means we have forgiven all of those
who sinned against us, and even ourselves.

We light a taper, place it in the sands
surrounding Christ, shifting under us.
We tell the skeptical that God forgives
them–they tell us the same absurd good news.
Our Pastor prays and lays upon our heads
a blessing undeserved. We leave this place
each marked by two crossed lines of dirty grace.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 6, 2014

Palm fronds and Ashes

Tomorrow morning Ida will be laid to rest. When her family cleaned out her hospice care room, already Spartan in its simplicity, they found stashes of old palm fronds she had saved from Palm Sunday along the way of her 99 years. They were the last things to go, found under her mattress, under her bed, and anywhere else she could think to keep them close. The Palm fronds and mass cards were among her most precious belongings.

In the Christian tradition the Palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned and saved for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” We are children of dust, and to dust we shall return.

Preparing to lead the Ash Wednesday Service several years ago, I could not find the ashes. The following piece, aired on Minnesota Public Radio, serves as a twinkle in the eye tribute to Ida, whose faith was enviably simple and strong. She never got into the collection of stuff; the few things she retained bore witness to her quiet faith.

Ashes

“They’re missing! Where are the ashes?!”

It’s fifteen minutes before the Service. “Where are the ashes!”

Every year I put the ashes for the Ash Wednesday Service in the credenza in my office. I never gave it a second thought that we had moved the credenza out of my office last fall. I rush downstairs to look for it. No credenza anywhere. Then I remember. We sold it at the Annual Fall Festival! Somebody has our ashes!

What to do with no ashes? Burn some newspapers? Smoke a cigar and use the ashes? No time.

I grab a pitcher and pour water into the baptism font.

I begin the Ash Wednesday Service with the story of the missing ashes. Smiles break out everywhere. Maybe even signs of relief. “Instead of the imposition of ashes this year, we will go to the font for the waters of baptism, the waters of the renewal of life.”

We have some fun justifying the change in the Service, focusing on part of the Gospel text for the day – the words of Jesus himself. “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen my others…. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret…” (Mt. 6:16-18).

People come to the font, one-by-one, for the Imposition of Water. I dip my hand into the font. “Pat, (making the sign of the cross on her forehead), “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. You are a child of God. Live in this peace.”

After the Service is over, one of the worshipers asks whether anyone has done the same for me. She reaches her hand into the font. “Gordon, dust to dust ashes to ashes. You are a child of God….”

I’ll never forget it. Neither will they.

Somewhere in this world someone has a credenza with a sack full of ashes. Whoever you are, feel free to keep them. They’re all yours.

————

Agatina (Ida) Misiti Terranova was born in Queens, NY, the second child of first generation immigrants. She spoke only Italian until the school truant officers paid a visit to inform Ida and Millie’s parents that all children in America had to go to school. Her father wanted them to stay home to help their mother. Girls didn’t need to go to school! Ida and Millie learned English, went to work in the garment district of NYC, married two brothers, Al (Ida) and Mike (Millie) Terranova, and raised their families on the best Italian cooking and a love that was as demonstrably joyful as their egg plant parmesan sandwiches were mouth-wateringly delicious.

Millie, Al, and Mike preceded Ida in death. May they all rest in peace.