Harrowing Of Hell
February 10, 2016

Ashes: Let Us Be Marked

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

I remember reading a scientific article that was about combining the fields of astrophysics and medical pathology and it was all about stars and how they eventually become part of our anatomical make up. We walk around carrying bits of the stars inside us.

While their work is intended for a scientific community, consider it through a theological lens. We all have stardust inside us as old as the universe—and some that may have landed on Earth just a hundred years ago. We think of our bodies as stagnant, but they aren’t at all. Very little of our physical bodies lasts for more than a few years. Our anatomy is constantly changing. “We’re more like a pattern or a process” than a solid.

What I hear in this goes beyond the human biology or the astrophysics, which are fascinating don’t get me wrong, but what I hear is the theology. The body is just dust, actually stardust., but it’s dust all the same. It’s dirt. It started out as dirt and will return to dirt in the end. And in the middle, it’s always changing.

So, what I make of this is that our physical bodies are grounded in the temporal experience of God’s creation, the dirt, which is pretty amazing, yet limited.

Jan Richardson writes a poem about Ash Wednesday in which she paints an image of “the stars that blaze in our bones and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear” the ashes, the dirt upon our foreheads. This is the stardust in our skin.

There are three occasions in which we are “marked” in the context of worship; at our baptism, on Ash Wednesday, and when we receive last rites. Two of the three times, we are anointed with oil, and the third, with ashes. The use of oil for anointing is an ancient practice with many examples throughout scripture and elsewhere.

Oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit and that is its use in baptism. Immediately following the baptism with water, the baptismal candidate is anointed with oil while these words are said: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” In baptism, we are marked as belonging to Christ and that can’t ever be taken away.

Whatever age a person is when they are baptized, they are marked and claimed in just the same way. Another baptized person, typically a priest, washes them three times with water; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Then, they are marked with oil. This is the fancy seal on the envelope. The final Amen! The icing on the cake. It seals the deal and God has claimed you for good or bad, in the ups and the downs, no matter what.

At the other end of the journey, is the final marking. The Book of Common Prayer calls it Ministration at the Time of Death or in common parlance, Last Rites. This marking and claiming is actually pretty similar to what we experienced in baptism, except we are at the other end of the earthly journey. God still claims us. Human hands still mark us. We are once more anointed with holy oil, in the sign of the cross upon our foreheads, a sensory reminder in our skin and in our nostrils of the God who has been with us for a lifetime and will be for an eternity.

And that brings us back to the final occasion of marking. The reason we are here today. This one is a bit different. There is still oil, but it is mixed in with the ashes. The tradition has been around since the end of the 10th century and it has remained virtually unchanged. The palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration are burned and reduced to a pile of ashes. Holy oil is mixed in just enough to make them spreadable.

And so, this day, this first day of Lent, we are marked as a sign of our mortal nature, a reminder that we are stardust. This is an act and a reminder of this season of penitence, of fasting, and self-examination. It is an echo of our baptism, and a foreshadowing of last rites.

BUT, I also want to be clear of what it is not. We are not being marked for sorrow, for shame, for false humility, or for thinking we are less than we are. That is not what this is about. This marking, this literal mark upon our brow is a reminder of what God can do with these bodies that are made of dirt. God claims us in baptism, God continues to heal us, and today God claims us again. Today, God marks us.

God marks our souls contained within the stardust, the stuff of this earth, and lets us know that are claimed for good. We are claimed by God.