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 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.

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.