Before the sun rose yesterday morning, in the early hours of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, members of the Northside Skull and Bones Gang took to the streets living out a two-hundred-year-old tradition maintained by descendants of Native Americans and enslaved people. Wearing oversized skull masks and clattering bones, they woke the residents of the Sixth Ward neighborhood. Knocking on doors, they warned their neighbors and the hoard of visitors who came to see them: “If you don’t live right, the Bone Man is coming for you.”
For many years, African Americans were not allowed to march in Mardi Gras parades, so the Skull and Bones Gang offered an alternative. Now they are part of the festivities—with a particular mission of warning teenagers about the dangers of violence and guns.
While those in the Gang are dressed as skeletons, their message is for the living and about living: “Learn how to live while you got a chance,” they shout. “Learn how to love while you got a chance. Don’t go around hatin’ other people. You gotta live while you can.”
As Fat Tuesday gives way to Ash Wednesday, we still hear that same message: “Live while you can.”
Yes, it comes to us in a slightly different way tonight. This is a day when we hold up our mortality. So, tonight we hear: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The message beneath those words, however, is “Live while you can.”
After all, we remember our mortality so that we might be fully alive in these days that we have.
Remember that line from Six Feet Under? One person asks: “Why do people have to die?” The response? “To make life important. None of us know how long we've got. Which is why we have to make each day matter.” What we do matters. Each day we choose—to tear down or build up, to complain or to encourage, to welcome or to turn away. The choices we make, the actions we take will determine the fruit that our lives bear.
Affirming that we dust and that to dust we shall return gives an urgency to what we do while here on this earth—not a desperateness, but an urgency. It allows us to hear Paul’s invitation, “Be reconciled to God” in a new way. Now is the day of salvation—the day when we might receive the fullness of life that we seek, the when we might give to other human beings and to the rest of creation out of the fullness that we have received.
Now is the time to turn once again to God who is the source of life.
We use ashes to give a physical and visual expression to this understanding. If you’ve been around here long enough, you know that the ashes of this night are usually made by burning some of last year’s palm branches, crushing the ash, and mixing it with a little oil. Sometime during the past year, however, the palm branches I saved last April went missing. I discovered this on Monday and, thanks to our friends over at Gloria Dei, we do have ashes this evening. So tonight these ashes not only point toward the forgiveness that God offers and the tender mercy of God, the mercy that we seek, the mercy that we find, in a small way they also remind us of the connections we have with other people of faith. We’re not doing any of this on our own.
And these connections are what make our living and our dying significant.
In his book Being Mortal, the physician, Atul Gawande, grapples with aging and illness and dying and what medicine has gotten wrong about all of these. In the epilogue, he says that “Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone.” Within those always shifting constraints and limits we learn what it means to be alive. When we face our mortality, we can decide what matters. When we know our time is limited, we can decide how to use the time we have.
Earlier in the book, Gawande recalls the early 20th century philosopher, Josiah Royce.
Royce “was concerned with a puzzle that is fundamental to anyone contemplating his or her mortality….He wanted to understand why simply existing—why being merely housed and fed and safe and alive—seems empty and meaningless to us.”
We need something more—and that “more” Royce called “loyalty.” It is commitment to a cause beyond ourselves. This cause can be large: family, community, the environment, faith. Or it can be small: a project, the care of a plant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we give that cause value, we see it as worth the sacrifices we make for it.
The selfish, Royce said, we will always have with us and they will always find ways to defend their selfishness. But, as Gawande says, “The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not.”
A cause outside ourselves to be served and the inner resources that find delight in that service give us the meaning we seek for our days.
The burden of love that Jesus offers, the yoke of compassion and community, do not give a life of ease. But they do give us a life of purpose and meaning. The lightness of the ashes that we take up tonight remind us of the light burden, the easy yoke that is gently held out toward us.
The ashes we receive put us in solidarity with those living in dust and ashes. At any time, and especially tonight, our worship is not complete unless it forges a deeper bond between us and those who are hungry and hurting, those who live with violence and warfare, those who are poor or despised. Because of that renewed connection we are sent out from here to bring God’s reversal of fortune, God’s justice and healing to people who sit in ashes and weep. We are sent to repair the ruined cities and the places of devastation.
At the same time, tonight, and through the whole season of Lent, our eyes are fixed, not only on injustice, suffering, and death. We look further ahead and move toward the new possibilities that God is creating in us through the resurrected Christ.
We are dust. We are ashes.
And, yet, in the days that we have, by taking up the light burden of love, we might become those who fulfill the prophet’s hope and give a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.