Roman Catholic priest Joseph Nassal tells this story,
Imagine you are walking down the street and come upon a house that has burned to the ground. Sitting in the midst of the ashes and rubble is a man in his mid-thirties. The young man, a professional, who might otherwise be a striking symbol of sanity and success, is rubbing the ashes on his arms, his shirt, his pants.
You stop on the sidewalk to watch him. At first you think the fire which destroyed his house also took his mind. One of his neighbours is standing beside you and tells you that this is where the young man lived as a child. The house had been vacant for a couple of years since the death of the young man’s grandfather.
“He was looking to sell the house,” the neighbour says, “but he never got around to it.” Then he adds, “Come to think of it, I don’t think he never came to take care of his grandfather’s possessions until after he died. He’s busy, you know, with his career and all.”
The young man stands and then stumbles over charred beams and scarred remains. You want to step forward to comfort him but can’t. What if he has indeed gone insane? No telling what he might do. You watch and whisper with the others.
He’s found something. The young man picks up a tiny object and holds it in his hand. He brushes away the powdery ash and rubs it on his face. His bath is complete. He is covered with ashes.
You inch closer to see what it is the young man has found. Whatever it is, it’s not very large. His hands hide it. Perhaps it is an heirloom. Then you see a tarnished chain slip through his fingers. A watch dangles at the end of the chain. Gracefully, gently, it glides back and forth as the young man gazes, hypnotized by memory.
You hear him say softly, “This was my grandfather’s. Just before he died he gave it to me.” It is one of those pocket watches that you put in your vest. The young man opens it and a smile slightly creases his face.
He puts the watch in his pocket and falls back to the ground. A cloud of dust rises as the young man rolls around in the ashes of the place he once called home.
“He’s lost his mind,” the neighbour whispers.
No, you think to yourself, he’s found his soul. (Joseph Nassal, The Conspiracy of Compassion)
An odd little story, don’t you think? It’s awkwardly morbid. Yet strangely life-affirming.
Ashes are the enemy. Ashes mean defeat. Don’t they?
Think about how bizarre these ashes look stuck to our foreheads. It’s as if we’re saying to the world “I give up!” We’re flaunting our mortality. We’re boasting in our weakness. Maybe that’s why we’re tempted to wash them off as soon as get into our cars. We’re embarrassed that someone is going to say to us, “You’ve got something on your forehead.”
It’s as if we’re telling the world the wrong kind of truth.
A week ago I received the sad news that the three-year-old cousin of a seminarian died after a valiant two-year battle with leukemia. I never met Hannah. But through Sara, our friend at seminary, Rebekah and I had been following her story. We received regular reports. I checked her website often. I prayed for her. I wept when she died.
I wonder if Hannah’s story moved me so deeply because was she was only a few months older than Sophie. So much life. So much joy, doused. And I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose a child. On top of sorrow I felt angry. Angry at the injustice. Angry at the absurdity of losing such a beautiful young life. Angry at knowing that her’s is not an isolated case. Thousands of children die each day. Hannah’s is just one voice in a chorus. So, I’m angry.
But moreover, maybe I’m angry because I know that one day Sophie will die. Naomi will die. Just like all of us.
It’s one thing to reflect upon our own deaths, but I think the death of one’s child carries its own special tragedy. I feel a responsibility for my children’s well-being and survival, and I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that Rebekah and I have brought Sophie and Naomi into the world simply to die. To me it feels like I’ve lost the game before it has even begun.
Irrational? Maybe. But aren’t most fears?
But maybe these ashes tell a different story. Maybe these ashes bear the wounds of the saviour who embraced our dustiness, our limitations, our failure, when he went to death on the cross. Maybe these ashes are signs of defiance against death and suffering and point to a new future. Maybe, these ashes, that we wear so proudly say to the world, I know you’re suffering. I know you carry wounds so deep that maybe you can’t even name them. I know that life can be devastating. I know all that because these ashes bear witness to my own suffering. And through my own suffering, I have learned compassion. So share your agony with me. So let’s breathe together. As the Spirit of the Risen Jesus who still bears the wounds of salvation, breathes with us.
More than a simple act of remembering that “We are dust and unto dust we will return,” receiving ashes is a sacred act of courage. It says: Yes, I am willing to wrestle in the darkness of these days “where the shadows of sin play hide and seek, where clouds of indifference have eroded commitment, where the cold winds of compromise have chilled compassion” as one poet says it. (Nassal)
Ashes say: Yes, I am willing to confront those death-dealing attitudes and death-denying gestures that have become second nature to me. Yes, I will roll around in the dust in an act of repentance and remembering and confidence. Yes, I will be mortal; I will trust God, because I can’t find my own way into eternity.
Even when we wash our faces, the ashes cling. They remind us that only God can bring new life out of these ashes. Only God can bring new life out of you, out of me, out of Hannah.
No, we don’t have all the answers for all the world’s ills, evils, and diseases. We don’t have the answer to death. But when we have the courage to live the questions with each other, then we may discover how the Spirit of God breathing within us gives us power to change from self-centred ways into a growing respect for the needs of others. The Holy Spirit loosens the grip that original sin and unoriginal indifference hold on our lives and frees us to remember what we need never forget: God’s fingerprints are felt on our wounds, God’s life breathes deep within us. It is because of God’s mercy that we can be merciful. It is because of God’s faithfulness that we can be faithful. It is because of God’s grief at losing God’s Son that we are re-born into eternal life.
So try as we might. We can never wash the ashes from our forehead. They stubbornly refuse to be wiped clean. Only though the waters of life given to us in baptism is the stain of death removed. In the meantime, I think I’ll leave my wounds open, hoping they will continue to teach me how meet others in their pain. And in our common wounds, we breathe together, conspiring for life, for love, for compassion.
And when people say, “He’s lost his mind,” I can answer, “No, I’ve found my soul.” Amen.