I would say that this was a weird Ash Wednesday if it were not for the fact that all Ash Wednesdays are weird. They’re weird if you are doing them right, anyway. In a liturgical church, the minister will bend down to whoever is kneeling before them and impose a smudge of ashes in the shape of a cross while saying, in essence, “you’re going to die some day.” That’s really weird when the person in front of you is your spouse, or child, or someone else’s child, or an old person who is acutely aware of the proximity of death.
But we didn’t do that this year. We didn’t do it because death is too close and too transmissible in the form of the virus that causes COVID-19. So we had to figure out how to approach the symbolism of this event — the ashes that represent the dirt that will enclose us one day — without full access to that symbol. A friend recommended moving through that symbol into the actual, moving from ashes to actual dirt. Being rector of a church that has an active graveyard, I was able to access actual dirt from an actual grave.
When I lived in Texas, I heard stories about families who would ship packages of dirt to expectant mothers living out of the state. The expectation was that they would put the earth under the bed in the delivery room so that the child could be born on Texas soil. To be a Texan means to belong the very land of the Brazos and Nueces, the Trinity and the Red. And if you are of the land, you will always have somewhere you belong.
It’s a promise that Jesus makes in his sermon on the mount. Matthew 5:5 says, “The meek shall inherit the earth,” which is often interpreted as “at the end of the day, the ass-kicked will get this lousy planet as their consolation prize.” As with so much of scripture, however, this is not what Jesus is saying at all. “The earth” of which he speaks is not that big blue marble that’s only visible in photographs taken from space. He means ha’aretz, the land, the soil. In Latin, it’s humus, the dirt out of which humanity is formed. A human who is grounded, in touch with humus, is humble (e.g. “meek.”)
Our groundedness and connection to a particular place gives us humanity and teaches us to see each other as human. Speaking to NPR, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse was asked what he thought contributed to the growing radicalization of our country. “I don’t think it’s primarily about an ideological spectrum. I think it’s primarily about the decline of place and about the evaporation of thick communities of people you actually break bread with,” he said. What is required of us if we want to belong to a place? What must we be willing to do if we want to become a part of the texture of the land?
There is a sacrifice we must be willing to make, a piece of autonomy that we must be willing to give up. In his novel, The Overstory, Richard Powers illustrates how a tree which has fallen in the forest remains important to that place and is arguably more important to the story of the forest. The tree itself has it’s own story, of course, which can be read in the rings of its growth. This year was wet, this one dry. This year had biting frost; this one had fire. And when the tree falls, it offers up its own story to participate in a story bigger than itself, surrendering control over how that story will be told.
In the process, both the tree and the ground are transformed. The log on the forest floor becomes a sanctuary for the new life of a mouse’s burrow or a mushroom’s spore. The ground becomes so sacred that Moses cannot walk there with sandals on his feet. Our stories, when we offer them in service to a place, make that place holy ground. And when they are not received, Jesus tells us to shake the dirt off of our feet and move on. Because our lives and our stories are too valuable, too treasured to be thrown away like forgotten seeds on forsaken ground.
In the week prior to Ash Wednesday, we mailed packets of seeds to our parishioners, seeds for marigolds and zinnias. Just as we took dirt from the grounds of the parish, we invited them to take up soil from their homes (or come get some from us.) At our Ash Wednesday service, we asked everyone to take this dirt into their hands as we blessed it with words adapted from a prayer for the consecration of a grave:
God of time and eternity,
whose hands have shaped the universe in love
and who makes all ground holy:
Bless this earth to be for us an icon of the sacred mystery
Into which we surrender our whole lives
dying, like a seed, to our selfishness
in hope of your resurrecting call
and in confidence of your unfailing love and mercy
shown to us in Jesus Christ the risen Savior. Amen.
And we encouraged the congregation to plant their seeds in this soil, to engage in the hard work of rending their hearts as they rend the dirt, to dig deep in the season of Lent, and to trust that — as their treasured stories fall like seeds into this rich soil of God’s Kingdom — they will be buried with Christ.
The essence of that trust is the faith that the seed we bury will sprout and blossom into a new and more beautiful truth as Jesus rose to a new life from the tomb. The hope which nourishes that faith is in the grace and the mercy of a God who will not abandon us and move beyond us, but will carry us into that new creation. The promise we are given is that, ultimately, the rust and corruption of death will not consume us because we have buried our treasure with Christ who said, “where you have put your treasure, there will your heart be also.”
You belong here. Thanks be to God.