Lent arrives Wednesday. The Methodist church we frequent announced it will provide the imposition of ashes at a service Wednesday evening. Count me out. Blame it on residual prejudice lurking in this Protestant breast, from the better part of a lifetime of observing on the day of Lent's beginning that it's the one day in 365 when one can tell who is and, equally important to this grandson of Ulster, who is not a Catholic. Apparently charcoal smudges on foreheads no longer guarantee allegiance to the Vatican.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," I have intoned a hundred times graveside. The ritual phrase is an elaboration of the curse on Adam in Genesis 3, a reminder of Adam's origin and our eventuality, toward which all mortal flesh tends from the moment of birth.
But who needs that reminder in the present moment when seemingly robust and substantial mortal institutions crumble before our eyes? Citibank, for instance. Not that many years ago I attended a breakfast at the Garden City Hotel at which the principal speakers were Steve Forbes, Sanford Weill, and Pete Dawkins. I may not have been able to measure the breadth of their financial acumen, but I sure was impressed with the cut of their suits and their supreme confidence. As I explained to my son-in-law, whom I affectionately call "our capitalist," I was cowed by the breakfast experience and not sure just why I was there. Actually, I knew why I was there, but I had no doubt I was out of my league.
Pinstripes and confidence: ashes, ashes, all fall down. The nursery rhyme, some claim, derives from a seventeenth century European plague, beginning with a ring of rosy rash and sneezing. The falling down on Wall Street is the consequence of another plague, not bacterial or viral, but spiritual, what the medieval listing of the seven deadly sins names as avarice. There's plenty of blame to go around, not just in the offices of lower Manhattan, but wherever in our society we thought we could make something out of nothing and spend it like it was everything.
401k's come crashing down; 403b's too. Who needs to be reminded that we are mortal and, if our treasures are not in heaven, thieves will break in and steal?
Far more personal summonses to acknowledge that I am dust and to dust I shall return arrive at a disturbingly accelerating pace, what with eighty years in sight. This past week I notified you of the passing of my friend and colleague not only in Methodist ministry but in Mets fandom. Austin Armitstead's enthusiasm for life and love bubbled over at every venue, whether it was the bowling alley where he triumphed or at Shea Stadium where he regularly implored the opposing team's southpaw to throw a wild pitch when a Met was on third. I witnessed his vitality slip away over the years, just as, much earlier, I watched my mother succumb slowly to congestive heart failure.
Ashes to ashes... I don't need a reminder on my forehead when all I have to do is look in the mirror, or read my Email.
Lent begins with ashes, but it ends with lilies.
On Easter Sunday we shall be summoned to lay aside sad thoughts and grieve no more our mortality, as we listen to Paul the Apostle offer us a far different reminder from the one forty days earlier: "this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality." Please don't take this claim as an invitation to rely on anything other than God's sovereign mercy. From a heart of compassion the God of Jesus Christ wills the supremacy of life over death, a glorious tide of vitality that sweeps along in its path all of the children of earth, wearing pinstripes or rags, naming the deity a hundred different names or none at all; that promise of Love's triumph rises with the sweet aroma of lilies on Resurrection Morn.
I'll hold on to that promise even as I decline the imposition of ashes.
And I'll reacquaint myself with the poet I met in 1950 in English 2, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I've quoted him often before and doubtless will again before the season brightens into summer. A line of the following quote appears on the floor of the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey where Hopkins is honored:
Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world's wildfire leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
From dust to diamond, that's a Lenten journey for which I'll gladly volunteer.