Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
Probably we are all familiar with this child’s playground rhyme:
Ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies,
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
Probably many of us have not only heard this before but maybe even some of us can remember chanting it on the playground when we were children. What we may not realize though is that that children’s rhyme is all about death and suffering. Like many fairy tales which tend sometimes to be rather dark, having come out of dark times and experiences, this particular rhyme has been traced by some scholars back to the time of the Black Death – the Bubonic Plague outbreak in London in the early 17th century. The rhyme touches on a common symptom of the disease – the rosie ring - an unfortunately completely ineffective prevention strategy – the pocket full of posies - but ends with death – “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
And it is true, we do all fall down, eventually. Death is a part of life. Death will come to us all at some time. And the ashes in the rhyme and the ashes on our foreheads remind us of this fact: that we are mortal and that our lives will run their course and sooner or later we will complete our lives join those who came before us in death. The mortality represented by these ashes also reminds us in life our mortality also brings with it many struggles – illness, loss, suffering at times, conflict. All of these are also a part of life. The ashes on our foreheads reminds both us and those around us that we acknowledge our mortality and humanity and all that comes with it.
Certainly St. Paul is wearing his ashes in our Epistle text for today. It is clear that Paul’s life of service to Christ was not an easy experience for him. Even as he struggled to live faithfully he also at the same time acknowledges his own mortality and humanity in this passage. Life as an Apostle for him brought with it beatings, imprisonments, sleepless nights, hunger and other hardships, including a chronic physical ailment that he refers to in other places as his “thorn in the flesh” which debilitated him at times. And yet he persevered; he continued in his work as best he could. In this passage he wants to encourage the young Christian community in Corinth to continue to be faithful and to continue to do the work to which they have been called and to continue to live their lives faithfully in their communities. And he does this by lifting up his own example, which I think he does not so much to lord it over them in a “well folks as bad as you have it, it isn’t as bad as me” kind of a way – but rather I think to try to help them to simply accept their shared humanity and mortality. Some of them perhaps became Christians believing that they would not have to experience hardships like this anymore. This is not true, says, Paul – we are and remain human and our mortality is something we hold in common.
Perhaps some of us from time to time feel like some of these Corinthians. In fact, I have heard Christians and Christian preachers sometimes suggest that “if you are just a good enough Christian” God will fish you out of your humanity and keep you apart from the hardships of life. But this is simply not true – and it is a very destructive thing to suggest. And not only that, but it is also an attitude that Paul rejects out of hand. We all share in a communion humanity and like Paul, we struggle with issues of weakness, health, loss and grief – we have problems with relationships – we are tempted and struggle with addictions – we sometimes allow our anger to boil over into violence – we sometimes allow our uncertainty and fear to affect our way of living and relating – and I could go on, and on, and on. You can add to this list your own unique experiences of being human I am sure. But this experience, no matter how hard or difficult it may have been does not in any way suggest that there is something wrong with you, or your faith or your relationship with God.
You see, these ashes may represent our shared humanity and mortality, but they are also not the end of the story. Just a few verses earlier before the beginning of this particular passage Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that “in Christ they are a new creation!” And so how can it be that this new creation is now smeared with ashes? This is one of the paradoxes at the center of our faith – we are at the same time both saint and sinner; we are poor but at the same time lavishly rich; we struggle and yet we rejoice; we wear our mortality on our foreheads but yet trust in the promise of eternal life in Christ.
And Paul has something to say about that too – “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” It is not off in the future or sometime in the distance – it is NOW. God through Christ is here with us – NOW; present with us in the midst of our humanity and our mortality – present with us as we struggle with what life sends our way - and present with us as we move towards our own deaths. That smear of ashes is not a random smear but it is in the shape of the cross and so these ashes not only remind us of our shared humanity and our mortality, but at the same time they remind us that the crucified Christ stands with us in the midst of our humanity and our mortality; and that God has entered into our world through Jesus and stands with us, loves us and is present with us now and always.
How then shall we live? What do these ashes mean for our daily lives? Well, Paul has an answer for that too: “Be reconciled to Christ” he tells us. In other words, Paul invites us to fully accept our humanity and mortality and at the same time to accept God’s gifts of presence and grace and forgiveness. Paul also suggests tools for our use on this journey of life and these are: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truthful speech, and compassion – these are the tools of the journey that will help us throughout our life’s journeys - the peaks and valleys, the joys and sorrows, the easy times and times of struggle and suffering. And throughout it all, no matter what, we can affirm that Christ is with us every step of the way.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down – but through Christ, we are raised us up through the abundant Grace of God.