Ashes Under our Fingernails — On Our Foreheads and On Our Hearts

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…” (Joel 2:12)

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…”

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the Sunday of Memorial Day week-end a dozen years ago.

A good friend had died in March and her family would be scattering her ashes that afternoon. They wanted me to come to speak the prayers and to join with the rest in spreading those ashes on the grave of her beloved husband who had died decades before. So I left directly from church on that Pentecost Sunday, all dressed up in red to commemorate that day, and I drove east to South Bend, with my heart in my throat, anticipating the final ‘end’ of something dear.

So it was we gathered at the cemetery — her four children and their children, her brother and sister and their families, her mother, yes, and a handful of friends. We gathered in close and I offered scripture and prayer and I spoke the words which are spoken every time we gather at gravesides for such as this.

  • In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, we commend to almighty God our sister… and we commit her to the ground.
  • Earth to earth.
  • Ashes to ashes.
  • Dust to dust.
  • The Lord bless her and keep her.
  • The Lord’s face shine on her with grace and mercy.
  • The Lord look upon her with favor and give her peace.

And all those gathered whispered, ‘Amen.’

And then I reached my hand into the urn and pulled out a handful of ashes which had once been the body of a beloved friend:

  • One who was born while her daddy was at war — the first of three children.
  • One who never got to go to college, always wishing that she had, but who raised her children to do what she could not.
  • One who grieved the loss of a husband too soon and who gave all she had to continue to make her children’s lives possible and who as a result of what she had faced down when she was young, took on life’s challenges with courage and with hope.
  • One who laughed deeply and loved even more deeply.
  • One who knelt at altars just like those we all do for bread and wine, week after week. And for ashes.
  • Indeed, one who was loved by God from before she was born and into her last struggling days with cancer and beyond.

I spread those ashes on that grave and then so did her oldest son, her only daughter, her sister, her brother and on and on… And there were still ashes left and so I reached in again and again and yet again so as to be sure that all of what physically remained of her would be left there. And then her eldest then took a watering can and sprinkled water upon them so they would not blow away. At least not on that Sunday afternoon at the end of May.

We left the cemetery together and went back to her house where her youngest son helped me to dig up a corner of her lilac bush for me to carry home. It first stood in my folks’ back yard. She had asked for a piece of it after my dad died and now it stands in my own back yard, taller than I am by several feet and where it blooms every spring.

We sat down for a meal together and told some stories before I headed for home with that twig of a lilac bush wrapped in paper towel and nestled in a plastic cup for the journey. Only besides the memory of that day, it turns out that was not all I was carrying with me. For it was as I drove that quiet trip on the interstate home that I looked down to see that I had ashes beneath my fingernails.

I stutter still to see it in my mind’s eye for as soon as I imagine it, I am right back there once more, remembering that tender loss that came too soon. Recalling how bound up we all are with one another in times of sorrow, yes, but also in times of joy. And yes, even now, giving thanks for the bond we cherish as on Ash Wednesday,  we sneak a glance at one another’s forehead remembering that we are all just dust. To know so deeply that at the center of who we are, we are all crafted from the very same stuff of creation. Just dust.

For oh, Ash Wednesday is for precisely this, wouldn’t you say?

Yes, the ashes are a vivid symbol of our repentance, to be sure. They also serve as signs of our fragility. In addition, they stand as wondrous signs that you and I, we are more alike than not, and that we are a part of each other in every single way that matters.

For on Ash Wednesday we all hear the same vivid reminder once more:

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And we kneel, too, to hear the same promises brought to us by another cross whose semblance we only bear for a while today:

              “The body of Christ given for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.”

We are ALL bound up together by the love of God which created us, which calls us home, which wraps us in forgiveness, and which sends us out for whatever or whoever we are called to next.

And through it all, though we may not physically see it? Every day we bear the sign of Christ’s cross on our foreheads — even after we go home and wipe those ashes away.

And this is so. I know this is so, whether we can see them or not, in a very real way we all bear one another’s ashes under our fingernails… for we are part of each other — bound up with and for one another — by God’s love and grace and power.

And in recognizing all of this, isn’t this the beginning of our responding to the command and invitation heard in the voice of the prophet Joel:

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…”?

  • How does the ritual of giving and receiving ‘ashes’ on Ash Wednesday assist you in ‘returning to God with all your heart?”
  • How do you experience Ash Wednesday? As a day of repentance? As a reminder of your own mortality? As a vivid sign of God’s love and your connection to all those God’s loves?
  • I offer one story of ‘ashes’ above. Do you hold such stories, too? How might they help you better receive the gift and meaning and promise of Ash Wednesday?


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