This past August, my eldest brother called me from Memphis. He called to say it was time to come home. Our mother was about to die.
For nearly two years, we had prepared for this day. For nearly two years, my mother had been in and out of hospice care, with her kidneys slowly failing. Now, the day of her death was fast approaching.
Susan and I packed bags, anticipating we would stay on for a funeral and made our way west. We drove from Knoxville to Memphis where my eldest brother and his wife lives, and then on to Kennett, Missouri, where my mother had spent her last few years.
From Memphis to Kennett is one hundred miles and you begin that trip by crossing the river, the mighty Mississippi. As a family, we had crossed that river countless times. Now, saying good-bye to our mother began by crossing over the waters once again.
We arrived in Kennett and were met by two more brothers and two more sisters-in-law. Even in COVID time, we were able to find a way safely to gather in my mother’s room, first her four sons and then her four daughters-in-law. We were able to see her, to speak to her, to pray with her, finally to anoint her. She died early the next morning, but we had made it home, one more time, just in time.
My mother was to be buried in northeast Arkansas, in a cemetery next to a simple country chapel. It was this cemetery that members of my father’s family had visited every Memorial Day weekend since the nineteen forties. On that weekend, they would gather to worship, to share in a feast, to walk out to the gravestones of the ancestors, showing the children who exactly they were kin to and how.
Because of COVID, we did not enter the chapel. Instead, we made the drive from southeast Missouri to northeast Arkansas and went directly to the graveside. Though it was August in Arkansas, there was a nice breeze and enough cloud cover to make being outside not simply bearable but also pleasant.
Outside, by her open grave, we met our Arkansas cousins who were there and already waiting for us. From the Book of Common Prayer, I led this group of family members through the burial office. My family, like so many families, cannot agree on politics or sports or church. But, we all agreed, without saying it, they we were kin, and all belonged to the land beneath our feet, which already is making claims on us.
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. As I said those words, I cast earth upon the coffin, as the Prayer Book rubric instructs. I picked up soil from a graveyard I had walked across my whole life and generations of my kin before me, and I cast that soil upon my mother’s coffin. I invited my family to do likewise.
So, they did. My wife, my brothers and their families, my cousins and their families, all those people divided by politics and sports and church, all picked up soil and cast it back down again, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.
For this past year, since last March, because of COVID 19, we all have kept a physical distance from each other. Touching another person, instead of being understood as a greeting and a form of connection, now holds the potential of viral spread and unintended harm. So, we keep distance, and pray that the distance between us will protect life and health and each other.
Yet, death is not held back from us. In this past year, death still touched those we loved, even if we did not touch them or each other.
Ash Wednesday, for so many of us is about being touched, about the imposing of ashes, about a thumb on the forehead, leaving a dusty, oily cross to remind us that we will die but need not fear death. Because after death, there is the resurrection.
The earth and the ashes and the dust remind us of that. They remind us that we are mortal. They remind us that the God who makes us from the dust is immortal and loves us before time, in time, and for all time.
For many of us, it is still not possible or advisable to gather in person for worship this Ash Wednesday. For many of us, we will not bear the dusty, oily cross on our foreheads. Still, as Christians, we are made to tell a story, to tell a gospel story. How can we still tell the story that we are mortals, that we will die, and we are loved by the eternal God made known to us through Christ Jesus, who is the Resurrection?
Well, why not go back home? Go back to the land, to the place where we say God made us, God sustains us, and God we will watch over for eternity. Go back to the land, to the earth, to the soil.
Instead of waiting for ashes to be placed upon your head, gather soil and place it in a bowl or a cup, fit to carry holy things. On this Ash Wednesday, and throughout this Lenten season, keep that soil close to you and yours, as a reminder that the people of the Cross and the Empty Grave need not fear death or deny it.
Many of us come from people who farmed land or grew gardens for food and flowers. So, if not in our generation, we all come from people who understood that soil contains all of life, both the beginning and the end, the early growth, the full harvest, and the crops going by.
In Ash Wednesdays past, the question is always asked, How long do you keep the ashes on your head? Do you wipe them off before you leave the church or do you wear them all day, as a silent witness to mortality and faith?
For this year, as we gather soil and touch the earth that sustains us, it might be more honest to admit that the cross upon our forehead is always there, even when not highlighted by dust. It is always there, even after the chrism oil fades.
The story of God includes the physical places where we have met God and stood in the presence of God. Through Christ Jesus, God descended and walked among us, on the ground, through the dust and ash and earth. We are marked by the God willing to be marked by human flesh, who died in order to destroy death.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells not to store up earthly treasures, for just like our bodies, those treasures will break and decay and fade. Those treasures will not save us, so do not place your salvation in them. What saves us is God’s sacrificial love. We are saved through the One who came down to us, who descended, who walked among us, who touched soil in order to touch eyes and heal them. We are saved by the One who revealed God’s divine love for us.
Friends, this plague of COVID will come to an end. There will be another side, where true gospel hope will grow from the earthly places we know and love. From the places that have shaped us, from backyard gardens and dusty pulpits, we will proclaim the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.
Even after COVID, however, we will not escape death. We need not fear that truth. For the land that receives us in death, has also made us in birth and sustained us in life.
Earthly treasures will pass away. You and I and those we love but see no more will live with God forever. It is the treasures that we cannot see that will remain. The mark of the cross on your forehead, the water and the oil and the fire and the dust. Even as they fade away, the mark they made remains.
It the mark of the Christ on you, in you, with you, always. AMEN.