It’s Ash Wednesday today in the Christian tradition and marks the beginning of the Lenten season. For several years, this was the Wednesday that I would mix olive oil with burnt palms, dip my thumb into the mixture and make the sooty sign of the cross on the foreheads of my parishioners as they knelt before me, reciting the words to each of them, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But the last year that I did this, I said the words, “Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.” For me, this more adequately summarized how we as human beings have come into being–and where we shall return. We are not just of this earth; we are of the cosmos.
On this Ash Wednesday, I was with my 95 year old mother, sitting at the table in a skilled nursing facility with 3 other women near 90, telling stories of their lives. Although recent memory is foggy for them, they could easily bring up those from childhood– churning butter, washing clothes in a wringer washer, eating only beans and corn during the Depression, the kind words of their mother, the pranks played by a brother or the Christmas Eves when Santa would come down the stairs with presents. They had lives full of hardship and pain, loss of sisters to scarlet fever, loss of a son in a car accident, the loss of three brothers in the war. As I sat with them and with the other 20 or so women who slept in chairs and pushed walkers around the room, I could see that it could look depressing with one set of eyes. But with another set, I could see how they were still shining even as their lives are waning.
We are such “perishable miracles” as Maria Popova says. I follow a her blog called Brain Pickings. This week (February 23, 2020) she explored the marvel of our existence by saying, “the central animating force of our species, the wellspring of our joy and curiosity, the restlessness that gave us Whitman and Wheeler, Keats and Curie, is the very fathoming of this fathomless universe — an impulse itself a marvel in light of our own improbability(my emphasis). Somehow, we went from bacteria to Bach; somehow, we learned to make fire and music and mathematics. And here we are now, walking wildernesses of mossy feelings and brambled thoughts beneath an overstory of one hundred trillion synapsese.”
I often ponder that we know a lot more about our universe than ever before; we can peer into space back billions of years. We’ve identified millions of stars, planets, nebulas, solar systems, black holes. And yet so far, there isn’t a blue and green planet where life as we know it exists. I have heard it said by cosmologist Brian Swimme that if Earth was tilted just a few degrees differently, life on Earth would not exist. I sense more and more how much I don’t get it—I and every other being is simply a cosmic miracle.
The physicist and mathematician, Brian Greene writes, (from the same blog by Popova), “Even so, to see our moment in context is to realize that our existence is astonishing. Rerun the Big Bang but slightly shift this particle’s position or that field’s value, and for virtually any fiddling the new cosmic unfolding will not include you or me or the human species or planet earth or anything else we value deeply.We exist because our specific particulate arrangements won the battle against an astounding assortment of other arrangements all vying to be realized. By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.”
And yet we are perishable. Ashes to Ashes. Stardust to Stardust.
Greene goes on to say, “In the fullness of time all that lives will die. For more than three billion years, as species simple and complex found their place in earth’s hierarchy, the scythe of death has cast a persistent shadow over the flowering of life. Diversity spread as life crawled from the oceans, strode on land, and took flight in the skies. But wait long enough and the ledger of birth and death, with entries more numerous than stars in the galaxy, will balance with dispassionate precision. The unfolding of any given life is beyond prediction. The final fate of any given life is a foregone conclusion.”
I no longer see that as a grim statement. Yes, there is yet a part of me that shies away from death–that part of my primal brain whose role it is to survive. And I don’t want to lose friends, let alone my children or grandchildren. I don’t want to lose my mother. Yet it is the truth. We live and we all die. We can blind ourselves not only that we are miracles, but also to this–that we are “perishable.”
Ash Wednesday serves to mark us physically with this remembrance. The black cross on the forehead of the congregation reminds them of the death of Christ, not the resurrection. It links our humanity to the story of God’s in human form. To be human is to die.
My desire is to grow in acceptance of that. To even be content with it. And let it fuel my gratitude, my fire, my creativity, and my utter awe.
Ashes to ashes. Stardust to stardust.