Date: February 17, 2021

Bible Text: Psalm 51 |

Ash Wednesday urges us to confront mortality and sin.

Consider mortality for a moment; not your own, but Julius Caesar’s. You may know the story: Roman senators were afraid that the  conqueror and emperor would become dictator, so they (including his traitorous friend Brutus) stabbed him to death on the floor of the senate. We’re coming up on the date, the Ides of March (15th) 2,065 years later. According to NPR:

Here's what chemistry students know: For some reason, Caesar's dying breath, his last exhalation, has become a classic teaching tool in high school and college. When Caesar exhaled, he released an enormous number of "breath" molecules, mostly nitrogen and carbon dioxide. It's a very, very big number… [according to a professor at] the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). By [the professor’s] calculation: .05 x 6 x 10 to the 23rd.

"10 to the 23rd" all by itself looks ridiculously large. It's 10 followed by 22 zeros…

Over the years, a number of scholars have tried to figure out what typically would happen to all those molecules. They figured some were absorbed by plants, some by animals, some by water -- and a large portion would float free and spread themselves all around the globe in a pattern so predictable that (this is the fun part) if you take a deep breath right now, at least one of the molecules entering your lungs literally came from Caesar's last breath.

But bottom line? [According to NPR]

Even though these calculations apply to any breath exhaled long ago -- Shakespeare's, Cleopatra's, Lincoln's, your great-great-grandma's -- you may still want to take a moment today to share with Caesar. Just breathe in and share his molecule.

You may be like me and not want to acknowledge that you’re breathing in the air of a colonizer and the head of an empire that was basically Jesus’ worst earthly enemy — my great-great-grandmothers and other ancestors, that’s a comforting thought — but not Julius Caesar or any of his ilk. Or, for that matter, a long, long, long list of other people throughout history and even some living today. This breath that God graciously, generously gives each of us, the breath of life breathed into our nostrils, is shared with people whether we like it or not. 

That’s one of many potentially painful or disconcerting facts we confront on Ash Wednesday. Some call death the “great equalizer” because it happens to everybody. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” is also true whether we like it or not. We are mortal. We are limited. We can be feeble. We get sick. We hurt… and that’s just our bodies! In terms of our moral life, the choices we make, we make mistakes. We cause harm. We injure others and ourselves. We contribute to injustice and oppression, knowingly and unknowingly. 

The British author Francis Spufford has a term for sin, “HPtFtU” an abbreviation for the “Human Propensity to [Foul] things Up.” We confront that as we begin the journey of Lent. 

But on this particular Ash Wednesday, to be frank with you, I don’t need a reminder of my mortality and the mortality of others. I didn’t want to google the coronavirus death count today. Our congregation has lost some good people this past year. Many of you are grieving other losses. 

And I don’t need a reminder of the HPtFtU. When I think about what personal wrongdoing and systemic and social failures are doing to people in Texas dying in winter storms, I get so angry. When I think about how much suffering could be avoided were it not for human greed and indifference in this world… I don’t want to confront that, let alone how I participate in it. 

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are ephemeral dust, that is true. We as a species can behave like the dirt under our shoes and that we scoop up in our hands; the evidence to that effect, historically and presently, “holds up in court.” That’s true. 

But there is a parallel truth and, I would argue, more important and eclipsing truth. The Ash Wednesday smudging refrain can also be phrased, “Remember that you are of earth and to earth you will return.”

We are broken and fallible creatures (emphasis on creatures). We are created. We and everything else that exists are created out of overflowing love. The Genesis story poetically expresses it this way: after God formed land, sea, and sky and everything that creeps and crawls and swims in it then, “Yahweh God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into [its] nostrils. The human came to life.” Remember that we, created in God’s image, are topsoil and to topsoil we will return. We are connected with the cosmos and its critters in ways we can only begin to fathom.

The aspect of the gospel that Ash Wednesday emphasizes is that God comes to us in Jesus Christ to restore the image of God that has been tarnished within each and every human life. Repentance is that ongoing work of turning away from that which diminishes life and turning toward that which leads to its flourishing. Sin divides; grace reconciles. Sin breaks; grace repairs. Friends, there is grace in the dust. There is grace in the ashes (or in the oil). 

So what can we do over these next forty days to deepen connection? How can we take stock of our lives and honestly see the things we do that separate us from God and others? What is broken and in need of repair in our daily lives? In our communities? 

On this most unusual Ash Wednesday, I invite you to take a deep breath. Take a deep breath and breathe in those molecules. The Spirit of God breathes into us the breath of life. And from our first breath to our last, we share something holy with every other human and every other creature. Remember that we are of earth and to earth we will return. In life and in death, we belong to one another. In life and in death, we belong to God. Amen.