Today we remember that we are dust – just like last year and the year before and for as far back as we can remember caring about this day, Ash Wednesday. But we must be told we are dust. We tell each other we are dust. It’s not enough to tell ourselves that we are dust. We cannot merely recollect our mortality. We must be told. It is not enough to know I am going to die. I must be told I am going to die. A person who will die must tell me I will die, that we, together, will die. And, perhaps, we will die together. But even if we do not die together, we will, all together, die.
But we will not altogether die. Hopefully, we will be remembered, as we remember those who have died. Those people who have touched our lives, for better or for worse, are part of us. Our memory becomes us. The dead are a part of us, they make us who we are. Their lives make us. We consist of our encounters, chance and those intended. Our identities are informed by the phenomena of our lives. Our lives are shaped by others’ lives. And when we die alone, it is alone. But we take the memories of others’ lives with us. And in our death, those memories in us die as well.
Ash Wednesday is a day of memory. A day when all is ash. When we remember that we are ash, but that also memory is immune from ash. In fact, in the midst of everything burnt and scorched and incinerated, memory of what once was survives. We remember the things we lost in the fire of our lives. We share our memories to remember the ash. We remind each other, so our memories, our selves will survive the ash we will become.
Ash Wednesday is also when we remember the future event of when we will no longer remember anything. When our memory ceases in our death. We will not remember that we cannot remember. We must hope that others will then remember for us. We must recollect for ourselves and for each other. Did you forget? That’s okay. That is what we do for each other. Remember when? Ah, yes! Yes, I do! Thank you for reminding me. And we will smile at our shared memory and feel the warmth of sharing.
So, underground, tonight, in a busy, Brooklyn subway station, like last year, I will again stand with a few others from St. Lydia’s and we will remind ourselves and anyone who comes and asks, that each of us and all of us are going to die. We will share a wistful smile, and I and my fellow Lydians will intimately mark ashes on strangers’ foreheads. And gently, softly, remember that we are going to die. “From dust you were created and to dust you shall return.”
And some will not be Christians. Some may remember when they were Christians. Some may miss Christianity, but cannot no longer bring themselves to be a part of it. But they can enjoy and remember this part of it. And what we do is for them, with them. We mark ashes on their faces. We are sharing ash. We are sharing our humanity and humanness with one another. Perhaps, there is no resurrection. But there is suffering and death. We can agree upon this. Let us share a gentle, melancholic moment when we can remember the coming of our death, remember it without suffering, without pain, with perhaps a little joy. Perhaps.
And some Christians will be confused. Why are we putting ashes on strangers’ faces in the middle of a subway station? Because, today is the day we remember we are ash. And you are ash, too. You will die, too. You forget this. You think too much about life after death. But you must die. It is not a bad thing to remember this. It is a good thing to remember this, that we will die. When we will pass from this busy, anonymous subway station of life. There is so much confusion in our lives. Peace be with you.
And we all go back into the subway station and out of the subway station. And so many of us people will have ash on our faces and share a look of understanding and secret, visible community, a community who remembers. And in our eyes, we will say to one another, “From dust we were created, and to dust we shall return.” And tomorrow, we will be anonymous again. But we will remember. What other day in our culture do we have with such a strange thing happens, people appear with ashes on their faces and the ashes are gone. But the faces, the memory of our faces remain.
This Lent on Bleak Theology, I will focus on memory, on recollection, on what memory does to us, the good and the bad of memory. How memory is plastic and fleeting and permanent and us. The Christian story is one of memory. We remember stories and teachings and we participate in remembered, ritualized actions. We do this in anticipation of something beyond memory, beyond repetition. We repeat with the hope of ending repetition and the radical idea of resurrection. But for just this moment, just this day, let us remember that from dust we are created and to dust we shall return. Peace be with you.