(The context for this sermon, preached four years ago, was a time of loss, fear, and uncertainty at my church.)
The first time I went to an Anglo-Catholic church, I was with a guy who liked nothing so much as shocking other people’s sensibilities. True to his nature, he took me and a few other friends to Boston’s Church of the Advent for a service of Evensong, hoping that we would be scandalized by the ritual.
But instead, I felt immediately at home. The scent of incense, though I had never smelled it before, was calming and comforting – otherworldly. As we sat in silence, waiting for the service to begin, I looked around at the church’s interior: tall, graceful walls, shafts of light piercing the dusky air through high windows.
All of a sudden the quietness was rent by a loud belch from a few pews in front of us. We looked, and the only person there was a very proper-looking lady, wearing a huge brimmed hat. We started giggling, silently, and couldn’t stop. It was as if we were kids again. We pressed our hands over our mouths and laughed doubled over, tears streaming down our faces. It was the funniest thing I’d ever experienced in church: the ethereal loveliness and silence of a holy place and beautiful, elegant people, punctuated by an earthy burp.
I went back to Church of the Advent several years later with a group of women friends. This time we were there for the Ash Wednesday evening service. The service was transcendently beautiful, as it had been before. But I was more critical now. I noticed that there were no women involved in the service at all, aside from the paid singers in their award-winning choir. I noticed that only masculine pronouns were used. And I couldn’t help but notice, when I went forward for the imposition of the ashes, that the priest called me a “man.” “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” I sort of recoiled – it was a physical reaction. I almost interrupted him and said, “Uh, mister? I’m no man.” But of course I didn’t.
I am not a man. Most Christians, in fact, are not men; women make up much more than half of our congregations, even if they are under-represented in leadership roles. It seems to me, in fact, that the church has spent a good part of the last 2000 years denying the dust, the soil, and the earth, and part of that has been denying the full humanity of women, who have been seen as more “earthly” than men (ironically, given the Eden narrative’s account that the woman is the only living creature not formed directly from the earth). In that context, what does it mean that we are dust, and to dust we return?
In the classic understanding of theology and liturgy, it means that we are mortal. It is a reminder, as St. Benedict said, to “keep death daily before our eyes.” It is a call to reflect on our sins, to reform our lives in light of the fact that we will die, that we will be called to account.
I have said before that I don’t find that theology particularly helpful. Yes, we are mortal. Yes, sin is real. A call to humility is often necessary for us. But wallowing in sin, putting joyfulness aside – that doesn’t seem to be the answer. Life is too short to make ourselves miserable, when we are already faced with terrible things: with sickness and broken relationships, with the loss of loved ones, with wars and ecological catastrophe, with fear, sorrow, and all the changes and chances of this mortal life. After all, the first message of our faith is this: Do not fear! Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.
You are earth. The story of Eden tells that God made you from the finest fertile silt, you and all animal life. God brings forth bread from the earth, and fruit from the vine, as the Psalmist says, to gladden human hearts. You are earth, and to earth will you return, but do not be afraid; I bring you tidings of great joy: you never left the earth. You are tied to earth as a fetus to its mother. An Anglican theologian once called Christianity the most materialistic of religions; by this he meant that Christians should revere matter. Out of it we were created, out of it grows our food, through it God came to us as the incarnate Christ, in it will we be restored in the resurrection.
This appreciation for matter, for the interconnectedness and holiness of matter, reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite books. The writer Monica Furlong was known best for her books on mysticism, and her lives of certain Christian mystics, but she also wrote children’s books. In one of them is a scene in which a young girl called Wise Child has to cross a narrow plank bridge over a fast-running stream. It’s spring, when the stream is running faster and harder than usual, full of ice-melt. She balks. But as she sits there, staring at the water, she remembers a vision she had in which she experienced herself as interconnected with all living things and with all nature – rocks and air, earth and water. She remembers that ultimately, nothing can truly harm her because nothing can take her away from the world she is a part of, the world God created and holds together. Ultimately, all things are held in the hand of God. Or as Paul puts it, nothing can separate us from the love of God. When she remembers this, Wise Child can cross the bridge without fear.
I suspect that many of us have had moments, maybe a long time ago, when we felt an inkling of our place in the wholeness and interconnectedness of all things, when we had a glimpse of the hugeness of God’s love and the holiness of the world. Knowledgeable people say that these glimpses of unity are given to people of faith early on in their spiritual lives, to keep them going when times get hard. They say we should not look for these experiences to recur, but remember them, and remembering will help us not lose heart. I trust them. When I am filled with fear about the future I remember that the end of my story will not change because of what happens in the interim. Sickness and loss are not the last words. Love is the last word. Mortal life may be filled with sorrows, and those sorrows are real, and painful, but they will be overcome. In some way I can’t fully grasp, they have already been overcome.
Lent can be many things. It can be a time to make reparation for the wrongs we have done, to go to someone and ask their forgiveness. It can be a time for solidarity with those who suffer, for enlarging our view of the family of creation. It can be a time to think more deeply about the resources we use and often take for granted: food and water, fuel and fiber, air and earth. But however we spend the 40 days of Lent, we must not use them to make ourselves miserable. If there is not an undercurrent of joy, if our earthiness depresses rather than comforts us, we’re getting it wrong. If we lose sight of the angels’ promise of joy or Jesus’ promise of life, we have forgotten the most basic Christian message.
If you are sad, if you are afraid, if you are grieving or hurt, then Lent can be a time to quiet yourself, to let God whisper to you some words of comfort. Recall times of joy; that joy will come again, by the grace of God. Recall those moments when you knew you were a part of all things, and holy. Recall laughter bubbling up out of silence, the sublime and the ridiculous hand-in-hand. Every day, in every season, is a time to practice resurrection.