Every day is a mortal day, and on this day among all mortal days, I return to a poem by a medieval rabbi named Yehuda Halevi:
‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be ––
to be!–– And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing: a holy thing to love.
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me, your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
Tis a human thing: love,
a holy thing, to love what death has touched.
God calls us daily to love what death can touch, what death has already touched, and will touch. And today we remember we are dust. We are dust. And we are often afraid of what that means.
About a year ago, as headlines were beginning to name a deadly virus potentially threatening the world as we knew it, I was in my car heading toward a meeting in the hope of learning there how to let go, how to cease setting the agenda, how to surrender my influence over others, most especially over those I love.
I was thinking about the many crazy ways I try to control other people believing I know how to keep them safe: how to hold onto them just as they are: under my influence, of course, directed by my encouragement, my endless preaching and teaching, my chastising care and control.
I was thinking about the necessity of letting go of all that when I realized I was almost out of gas. So I pulled into a BP station, and then, while filling up the tank, from out of who knows where, likely some rumor on the radio, I started worrying about the coronavirus, and began to wonder what I could do to stop it. I sat there holding the gun of that cold nozzle and began bobbing my worried head like I just might shake some miracle out of it.
Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.
Over the last year, so many nurses, physicians, and other essential workers in the medical field have been the hands that daily tended what death can touch. They have done this almost out of sight and out of mind. And done it sacrificially at risk to their own lives.
I think Ash Wednesday aims us not only to name what death can touch, but also to love what death can touch. I think it marks our mortality, yes: the fact that we will all die, and yet it also marks the lovely gift of this mortal life we share.
The sign of ashes grounds us in the dust, in our limitations and longing for God, while also marking the holiness of all life crying out to be loved, cared for, known.
I’m reminded of a story I cherish about St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a story I often revisit on his feast day but have never connected to the imposition of ashes, which is odd because it’s a story about ashes.
Apparently, one day Francis met up with one of his followers, and the man asked if he could have a copy of the psalms for his own personal use. And Blessed Francis said something like this, When you get a psalter, you’ll want a prayer book; and when you get a prayer book, you’ll want to act like a big-shot priest and command your brother to bring you your prayer book. And then working himself up even further, Francis took ashes from a nearby hearth and rubbed them onto his body, and said, I’m a prayer book! I’m a prayer book!
It’s a gesture that marked both his mortality (made of ash) and the living prayers of his Creator. Francis, you may remember, thought of death as a sister. Sister Death, he called her, naming her as a companion in life.
I speak to each of you now, when I say this:
Every day of your life, God places a living prayer book before you. You are in it. You are alive in it.
Every person is mysteriously made of ashes, dust, earth, yet by God also alive: a living prayer.
There will always be hurtful forces — small and private, global and communal — forces we cannot thwart or stop or control or manipulate. But there will also be – as there is now – plenty within our reach to love and tend and overcome.
I close with a prayer: Gracious God, you sent your Son to share our dust and to know our fears; for his sake, open our eyes to see the living prayer book you set before us. Give us courage to love and bless, heal and bind, anoint and repair, what you daily give into our care. Amen.