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.

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.

reflections in a dew drop

Reflections on a Dew Drop

Gordon C. Stewart

Born in water – in a Mother’s womb

the sea of amniotic fluid

– the primordial sea

from which all life begins

“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes”

we say at the end

but it’s the water that goes first

– the one percent

that makes the dust

dance and glisten

into consciousness.

i stand on the porch in the morning

camera trained on a dew drop

hanging from a leaf.

In the drop i see a human reflection

– me with my camera –

And i wonder.

 Am i looking at the dew drop?

Or is the dew drop looking at me?

  Or perhaps there is no ‘it’ or ‘i’,

But a Sea of water everywhere,

an All that contains us all.

“Where are the ashes!!!”

Gordon C. Stewart, February 24, 2012

It happened on Ash Wednesday.

“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 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 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. 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. And 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.

Dust to Dust, Muscles to Mush

Ash Wednesday: Muscles to Mush

Gordon C. Stewart. MPR commentary. Feb. 17, 2010. (The family had vacationed in theKatie in Costa Rica jungle of Costa Rica at step-daughter Katherine’s request after a diagnosis of terminal cancer.)

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.  It’s an Ash Wednesday kind of week. It puts me in mind of another Ash Wednesday, two years ago:

“You want to go down to the waterfall?  Come on – I’ll show you a shortcut!”  The invitation comes from Ryan somebody-or-other, who lives next to Las Aguas, our home deep in the jungle ofCosta Rica.  We’re having fun now.  We’re on vacation!  At 65, shortcuts sound good.

Ryan leads the way to a steep and narrow jungle trail.  “Hang onto the rope with your left hand. The railing on your right is only there in case you lose your balance.”  The blue rope is thin and slack.  The railing is two inch round bamboo.  Ryan – in his mid-30s and fit as a fiddle – leads the way down the steep ravine, followed by Chris, Kay and Katherine.  I bring up the rear. I tell myself that I’m last because this way I get to protect Katherine in case she falls or needs me.  Everyone else knows that I’m last in line because I’m like an old tortoise trying to climb down stairs.

The “shortcut” — this great adventure we’re all enjoying — is steep, 60 degrees or so.  My legs, whose only regular exercise is climbing the stairs in our house or the one step up into the chancel on Sunday mornings, are turning to jelly.  By the time we climb down 75 jungle steps,  Katherine, whose fingers are either numb or painful these days because of her chemo, declares something uncharacteristic of her: “I don’t think I can do this.”  I don’t think I can either.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, muscles to mush.

I’m thinking that we’re going to have to go back up this trail.  I’m thinking that we should turn around now while we can.  I’m thinking about Katherine’s hands, her cancer, her exhaustion, and how badly she wants to do everything that has brought us here, to this trail.   “It’s not far,” Ryan assures us.  But like George Bush, Ryan is from Texas.  “Sure!” I mutter to myself.  “Sure it’s just a little farther.  Even if it was a mistake, we have to stay the course.”  There’s no turning back now.  I wonder if everyone fromTexas stretches the truth.

Sure enough, it turns out we are only halfway there. But we trust Ryan and keep climbing down to the falls, Katherine ahead of me, the helper tortoise, sliding and slipping downward and sideways, leaving several cracked bamboo railings as a reminder that I’d been there.

At the falls Ryan and Chris, both as agile as the Costa Rican howler monkeys that swing in the trees, scale the falls to perch on a ledge with the waterfall cascading over their bodies.  “Just one little slip of the foot from death” is what I’m thinking, trying to remember when my body was well-toned.  Kay takes her camera and has a field day.  Katherine and I hang out, breathe, and agree that it’s beautiful — and that it would be a lot more beautiful if someone sent a helicopter or just beamed us up.

The way back to Las Aguas is easier, perhaps because it isn’t a shortcut.  This other trail takes no more time than the shortcut, and it’s much easier on the thighs, the hands and the brain.

I conclude that shortcuts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be – like stimulating the economy by depleting the national bank account. Like giving ourselves quick fix tax rebates so we can spend the receipts and leave the long-term debt for our grandchildren.

By the time we get home, our legs have turned to mush.  It reminds me of Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is made on one’s forehead with ashes.  Dust to dust.  Ashes to ashes.  Muscle to mush. For us Christians, there is no shortcut through this season, no Easter without Lent.

In the hours following our return to Las Aguas, Kay assures me that some soreness is a good thing.  I’m tired, woefully out of shape, sore, and a likely candidate for a heart attack, which, as Kay reminds me, means … I’m not dead.  While the dust and ashes that I am still have some muscle left, the soreness reminds me that I’m alive.

Someday everything that I now claim to be my self will turn to mush.  The pain will go away.  On the jungle floor below the falls, the waterfall will wash over us and carry what’s left downriver to wherever the river goes. Then there’ll be no shortcuts and no illusions of time.  Just the long river into eternity.