March 2, 2022
Some of my clearest memories from childhood come from my two grandfathers. Both of them served in the United States Army during the Second World War, and I remember sitting at their feet and listening to their stories. My paternal grandfather was a B-17 pilot, my maternal grandfather was in the Military Government in Europe. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve been so struck by the events in Ukraine and Russia. The idea of a ground war in Europe, the idea of one country invading another like this, well, it just seems so twentieth century. I suppose I was just naive, but until last week I had difficulty conceiving of something like this happening in the twenty first century. It’s not that I, or my generation, has never witnessed terror and war. My dad worked for an oil company so I knew pretty much everything that was going on in the First Gulf War. I remember hearing and reading about the killing fields in Srebrenica. And then of course, September 11th was a formative experience in my high school years. I had classmates fight, and die in Afghanistan and Iraq. But this week, what’s going on over there, feels different. Tanks. Airplanes. Naval bombardment. The specter of nuclear war. It just doesn’t seem possible. This seems like something from one of my grandfathers’ stories.
More than anything, then, this is a reflection on the frailty and the uncertainty of life. It’s become all too obvious that for most of us, here in this room, we’ve never had to grapple with the threat of an invading army. We’ve never had to hide out in a bomb shelter. We’ve never watched our homes, our schools, our neighborhoods vaporized in a missile strike. I would imagine that the same is true for most of the people of Kiev; having little to no concept of what it would mean for their city to become the target of bombardment. What it would mean for their city to become ashes.
Ashes. The very stuff we smudge on our foreheads on this solemn day. A symbol, a reminder of death. A reminder that God formed us out of the dirt of the ground. A reminder that we are all headed to the grave, whether we live on this sunny little island, or in the bombed out streets of Ukraine, or among the most desperately poor throughout the world. Today is a reminder from God and the Church that whether we live in the most glamorous high rise in the most fabulous city; whether our yacht is parked along the waterfront; whether our homes have disappeared in a bomb blast; or whether we have no home at all, our fate is the same. Ashes. The psalm says it best – God knows what we’re made of. We’re made of dust. And nothing, nothing will change our lot or our destiny.
With all that in mind, there is only one logical thing to do. It’s to drop to our knees in prayer. To repent, to turn our hearts back to God. To hear again those words of life, that the things of this earth will rust away or be stolen from us. To hear again from Jesus, that though we are dust we are loved by God. To turn our hearts back to God because God is the only thing that won’t turn to ashes.
And those ashes, those ashes that we will place on our foreheads. They are not for others to see, as Jesus reminds us. Those ashes are not little check marks of approval, proving that we’ve been to church. No, those ashes are for us. Tonight you will go home and see them in your bathroom room. Tomorrow you’ll wake up and you’ll see some ashes on your pillowcase. For me, every year, I have ashes under my thumbnail for days. It’s a reminder that my time is short and uncertain. And that I need to prepare myself to meet the Lord Jesus.
Lent is that such a time to prepare. And as you repent, and turn back to God, prepare yourselves. Prepare yourselves for that great eventuality. Put your will together. Get your estate in order. Make arrangements to give gifts, if you are able, to church and charity. Plan your funeral. I know, I know, chances are that you will be here next Ash Wednesday; and you might hear something similar again. But you might not. And what this week has taught us is that for some of us, that end, our death, our return to the dust, may come upon us suddenly and unexpected. I will tell you that in my eleven years of priesthood, I have imposed ashes on parishioners and then officiated their funeral before the next Ash Wednesday. Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you, it definitely could. I didn’t think I would live to see another ground war in Eastern Europe. And yet here we are.
On this somber day, as we gather to mark our mortal nature, to repent, to dwell in ashes, we must hear again the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.”Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”