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The Rev. Michael Sullivan The Rev. Michael Sullivan
The Rev. Michael Sullivan is rector of Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA, and the author of two books.

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Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA


Yearning for Ashes

February 23, 2012

I remember the first time a priest placed ashes on my forehead. I hadn’t grown up going to church on Ash Wednesday, so the first time I experienced the liturgy was when I was a teenager.  A few of my friends and I decided we’d check out the service, a driver’s license and any opportunity to go somewhere together being our primary motivation.  And yet, in retrospect, there was another reason: a deep yearning. 

A new minister had arrived at our church, and quite honestly, I found his very presence among us an invitation toward my yearning for God.  He loved liturgy, and right after his arrival, we all experienced a renewal of beautiful worship in our community. Sung Psalms, communion many Sundays (we were Methodists, after all), intentional preaching and great hymnody were his hallmarks from his earliest days with us.  So knowing the integrity of his leadership, I thought I’d go with my friends to see what this “new” liturgy, or at least new-to-me-liturgy, was all about.

To this day, I can describe the service in detail.

From its somber beginnings without procession to the bareness of the chanted Psalm to the lessons of austerity and discernment, the same ones we read today, the service moved me in my bones, to my very soul.

The sermon, about God’s grace and love, those never ending blankets that hold us in the lap of God’s mercy, the sermon brought a tear to my eye. I believe it was the first time I had “surveyed the wondrous cross.”

This crescendo of liturgy, this inhalation of an ancient rite into the depths of my soul, this crescendo led me to the imposition of the ashes where my life intersected with the lives of saints and prophets of old.  As the priest’s hand touched my forehead, speaking clearly that I was dust and to dust I would return, the foundations of the world shook.

I was a teenager. I was free to live as I wanted; everything was before me. I was reaching for the top of my game, ready to assault the world, take on anything, and conquer all.  Yet the Church told me “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Not one day in the future, but that very day: I was dust, and that meant that any day, I could die, meet my maker, return to that from which I came.

These words and this practice of the ages were precisely what I needed, what I yearned for, in my soul, in my very self: I yearned to hear and to know, to feel and to be, a mere mortal, a human being.

Each year when the ashes are placed upon my forehead, I go back to that moment.  I may stand in this place, or in any other, but in truth, I stand in St. Mark Church, I stand before Mr. Holmes whose hands are stretched out toward me in love and grace and mercy.  For you see, when I discovered that I was dust, that I was going to return to the earth and not live forever, grace and mercy kissed each other and the old, old story of God’s redeeming love became mine.

The yearning became the reality.

In truth, grace and mercy are always the invitation of the Church. Many times we obscure this message with our incessant desire to nail things down, to fashion dogma and doctrine, to theologize and make abstract God’s work among us.  But in the ancient words and practice of ashes freely given, it’s hard to theorize. It’s difficult to escape the truth.

The truth of the ashes answers the yearning of our souls.  Amidst ash and dust we are transported not merely to our end but to our beginning. For when we allow our ashes, our dust to be present and real, we hear the breath of God breathing over us, God’s ruach ha-qodesh, inflating our lungs, enlivening our bodies, answering the yearning of our souls.  The great paradox is that by accepting our death, we journey toward life, finding our place in the created order and accepting God’s spirit as a gift in every moment.

What part of you needs to die this Lent so the yearning within can feel God’s breath rising up from the ashes like a phoenix? What part of you yearns for ashes this day? What part of you is already dust yearning for new life?  Do you have leftover ashes of resentment, a harbored anger, a misplaced distrust? An over indulgent appetite, too much alcohol, too much work or time away from home, an estranged relationship with son or daughter, father, mother, friend, priest, teacher, co-worker?

What do you yearn to entrust to the ashes? What given to God will be transformed by grace and mercy into God’s redeeming love? As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you . . . .[guiding you] and above all [in your ashes], trust in the slow work of God.”

My brothers and sisters, this past week a funeral plan arrived in the mail.  My good friend and mentor Mr. Holmes sent it to me, asking if I would preach when his appointed day came.  I shed a tear, remembering this giant of man, remembering this saint I was lucky enough to know.  No doubt on this day, when the ashes are placed upon my forehead, I will hear his voice, saying: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Earth to earth.  Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust. Wrapped in a blanket of grace and mercy, a child in the lap of God’s redeeming love.  Indeed, “God will make this wilderness, [even this dust], sing for joy.”  (John Wesley)

Answer the yearning. Give your self, your very dust and ashes, to slow work of God.


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