As a child, I was fascinated with ash. My parents had a home with a fireplace, one of those incredibly inefficient brick boxes built into the wall that doesn’t so much generate heat as it sucks the air that the furnace has heated out of the house. And I loved sitting before it. I loved watching paper and then kindling and then wood turn into ash. Sometimes, depending on the intensity of the flames and their heat, the ash would resemble what it had been before the fire came, so that the blackened remnants of a log or, magically, a piece of paper would sit in the fireplace. Sometimes the paper would even have text or an image still visible upon its darkened surface.
It was almost unchanged.
Except what I knew was that the paper was changed, and that it was changed irrevocably.
Once or twice I tried to pick up one of these charred notes or drawings, to hold it in my hands and read it the way that I could’ve done before the fire. But the instant that my hand arrived, the paper turned into dust, black and grey dust that permeated my fingers, so that my hands suddenly told the story of soot, and I had to be careful not to touch the carpet or my clothes or the curtains, lest I spread that story everywhere.
Over the course of a winter, the fireplace would fill up with ash, with the legacy of fire. And so my father would empty it out, spooning the ash with an old and beaten shovel into a bucket. My father was a composter – he remains a composter, even today in his 92nd year. Long before the city began delivering green bins to our homes, my father had an enclosure made of salvaged wood in the corner of our yard into which went banana peels and carrot shavings and forgotten bowls of cereal. Across the wet of the Pacific Northwest winter, the compost would be strangely warm in the cold. And then, early in the spring, my father would dig up the garden bed and pour in the compost. On top of the compost, around it, he would pour in the buckets of ash. And then he would return the soil to the top and the ash and the compost would rest in the darkness.
The sun would return and my mother would plant the seeds. And out of the compost and the ash would come new life.
Around the same time that I was gazing into the fireplace, I was also going to school. And there I learned about the food chain: about the stack of things that eat other things. So, plankton or worms or grass are eaten my small animals which are eaten by larger animals which are eaten by still larger animals which are eaten by human beings (or, as the textbooks called human beings back in the 70’s and 80’s, man). At the top of the diagram, at the top of this buffet provided by nature, stands the human being, proud and free.
Except that what the ash and the garden told me was that the food chain was a fiction, that humanity’s independence from the food chain was a fiction.
There is a moment, just after a person dies, when you stand beside their bedside and someone says: it’s almost they are sleeping. And in a way, that is true: sometimes there is peace on a dead person’s face that you seen for months or years. But in another way, it isn’t true at all: even if you don’t check that person’s pulse or listen for their breathing, you know that they have gone, that they has stepped out of their body, irrevocably.
On this occasion, on Ash Wednesday, we remind one another that we are going to die, that the day when our bodies lay still and empty is coming for us all. On that day, we will step down from the top of the food chain. Notwithstanding the best efforts of the most expensive morticians in the world – no matter how much formaldehyde is poured into our now still veins, no matter how thick the walls of the coffin in which we are laid may be – we will return to the earth.
Like the first humans in scripture, like the ones we call Adam and Eve, we were created by God out of the earth. In a very real, very literal sense, our bodies are crafted out of everything we have ever eaten and all the air that we have ever breathed and all of the sun that has ever landed on our skin. And at the end of our lives, we will return everything. Everything that we have borrowed from God. And it will turn into something new, into new life.
On Sundays, when we say the creed together, we proclaim that we believe in the resurrection of the body. Those are awesome words. What do they mean? Part of what we are saying is that we have caught a glimpse of a mystery. Through our experience and through our tradition, we have caught a glimpse of the promise that, when our bodies lie still, our life somehow continue. In death, as the Prayer Book proclaims in the funeral service, life is changed, not ended.
Today I am wondering if, when we speak of the resurrection of the body, we are also speaking of an everyday mystery, of the beautiful promise that, when we need our bodies no longer, our bodies will feed life and become life and participate in life. The elements in our bodies were thousands of things and creatures before they were us. And after we let them go, they shall be thousands of things and creatures again.
At the end of our sojourn on this earth, our bodies shall be like the paper in the hearth after the fire. Maybe some of our story will even be visible on our faces. But we, we will be gone. And when the hands reach down to lift us up, we will be already turning back into dust from which we came.