After the death, after the funeral, after the condolences, after the kind words and the food and the tears and the embraces, my mother and I were left alone with a small brown cardboard box. It looked like any box, but was strangely heavy when I lifted it. I carried it to the car and set it on my lap and mother and I just sat there and looked at one another helplessly. What would we do with the ashes?
Ashes are what endures. When everything else that made you yourself is gone, still there will be ashes: a tangible, weighty reminder that you have been in this world and that the substance that makes you yourself will never leave it.
Today is Ash Wednesday. People will come to the church, some of them strangers, some of them people we love, and they will kneel at the rail and tilt their faces toward us and we will dip our fingers into a bowl of ash and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That could sound as if we are saying they are nothing, that they are small, that they came from dust and will return to dust. But ashes are not nothing. For the rest of time, your dust will mingle with the good things of this earth, will nourish them in a final act of love. You will give yourself away to the needs of this earth even when there is no self left for anyone but God to find.
If you go poking around the ruins of pre-Columbian civilizations, you will notice a strange thing. Streaked through the poor soil of the jungle, there are acres of rich, dark soil, gleaming like expresso, and from them harvests grow in abundance. Those soils are not “natural”; they were made by the Native American peoples, who learned that if you mix ash into your soil, year after year, century after century, you can make poor earth into good. You can make a desert blossom, with enough ash.
On Ash Wednesday, the ashes are a reminder of our mortality. They brand us as bodily creatures, and not merely as intangible spirit. The words we hear encourage us to tend the spirit, to discipline our selves, to place our bodies in the service of what we believe in and of the One who made us. But the ashes speak a different story. They remind us that even our frail flesh, which is here today and tomorrow will be gone, does not fade away forever.
What has been loved by God endures. What has been beautiful to God remains always with God. What has been loved by God endures. Even you.