Ashes for the Co-Creators

Ash Wednesday- Fr. J. Devin Rodgers

En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo. Amén (+)

Three ladies emerged from the kitchen of a small Mexican bakery in San Francisco’s Mission district. They stood before my colleague Sarah and m.

I dipped my index finger into the small bowl of ashes, extended my hand and made an ashen cross on their foreheads. My friend said the words in Spanish.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”

The three bakers made the sign of the cross.

“Gracias padre.” 

They returned to their work tending the mixer, icing small cakes and ringing up customers who stood at the register wondering,

“What just happened?”

We left the bakery and headed back into the golden hour sunlight as rush hour commenced. The 16th Street BART station was bustling with activity. Commuters slung their work bags over their shoulders, adjusted headphones and hastily headed home for the evening. 

We made our rounds throughout the Mission District distributing ashes to workers who had been tending their small family businesses since before sunrise. We walked into the kitchen of a MacDonald’s and gave ashes to teenagers assembling Big Macs. We were stopped by a Salvadorian woman carrying her baby on her hip and a bag of groceries.

To mother and baby

“Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”

In other shops grandmothers and mothers yelled to children busy with homework.

“Ven aquí!” 

They set down their pencils and headed over to receive ash on their foreheads. They looked at us with bewilderment. “What’s the priest doing here?”

Despite it being a holy day of obligation, these devout Christians were working out of necessity. They didn’t get the luxury of stopping to attend a one hour mass. 

Life was happening all around us.

What I remember most about this special Ash Wednesday was how the sacred seemed to touch the ordinary. Commuters hustled by the few parishioners standing at the top of the escalator with a smoking thurible, which sent the sweet smell of incense into the air. They held bowls of burned palm branches in their hands.

Several stopped to talk or pray. We distributed ashes to the homeless who were sitting among shopping carts full with their belongings. The ash on their foreheads next to open sores and matted hair – both signs of mortality. 

This liturgy was one of the many turning points in my faith life.

The work of the people, truly belongs with the people, often the people who do work that goes unnoticed and taken for granted – the work of the people who’s true work cannot emerge due to a society that crushes them under its weight, preventable diseases or the addictions that hold them firmly by their throats.

That evening mass was held in our church building. I compared the twenty in attendance to the dozens upon dozens of grateful immigrants, day laborers working long hours, and our overlooked unhoused neighbors. Perhaps coming face to face with their own mortality, they were grateful to receive the blunt, but necessary message.

You were made from the earth. You will one day die and return to earth.

It’s not meant to be comfortable. 

It’s the truth. Truth meets us where we are, not where we feel comfortable.

And so…the liturgy, the work of the people, belongs with the people.

This is a message of hope.

However, this is not an opportunity for the church to “reach out,” as if we were selling a “holy product” or trying to win people over to Jesus. This was not an attempt to put more people in our Sunday pews.

Being with the people, for the people – mere mortal everyday people like us – is holy in and of itself. Seeing another for who they truly are, and where they are, enables us to see ourselves for who we truly are.

They…

we…

are dust.

But this isn’t meant to be a diminishment of our humanity. On the contrary, this is nothing short of a profound remembrance of love. 

“The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”

Adam, Adamah in Hebrew, literally means “ground,” He became a living being.

From the very beginning the intent of God was to breathe life into the lifeless, in order that something beautiful might unfold. Humankind created in the image of God is charged with multiplying creation and caring for what God made… including one another.

Mankind, Womankind, humankind is made in the image of God which means we too breathe life into the lifeless in order to create as the creator does. 

We allow others to breathe new life into us.

That is what happened to me that Ash Wednesday afternoon. 

Many theologians describe humanity as the created “co-creators.” We work alongside the Creator.

The problem however is that we never seem to get this quite right. We forget that it is God who first gave to us, first cared for and created us. The Lord first breathed the breath of life “the ruach” into our nostrils and set us out on holy work. 

We can claim NOTHING as our own. nothing we have worked for, cared for, labored for, learned, crafted or built is ours. Without God we are lifeless.

Our own bodies themselves are formed from what God first made. 

But that’s only half the picture. The rest is a God who gives freely and asks that we do likewise. In fact co-creators glorify the Creator.

God gives life and love so that more life and love might be created.

It’s an eternal cycle that even death doesn’t break.

Two weeks ago I went to visit one of our beloved parishioners who was nearing the end of her earthly life. At first, the room was empty aside from the two of us. It was quiet and I sat to offer prayers and the sacrament for the last time before she would see its fulfillment in Heaven.

As I sat beside her holding her hand she asked me.

“What is the purpose of all this? It doesn’t make sense? Why?”

My gut response was to say, “God knows something new about love because God was able to see the Creation through the love that you created.”

Somehow that seemed too abstract and ethereal and so I followed up with a question.

“What moment in your life brought you the most joy.”

Her eyes met mine and the answer that followed tore the thin mortal,  ash smeared, veil of this earthly life and the ongoing eternal life of God. It was one of those “curtain in the temple ripped in two moments.”

She said in labored breath “The moment I met my babies for the first time.”

It was the most holy answer I’ve ever heard and I knew it was spoken from the Truth that first birthed life from a generous and unlabored breath.

I let her words linger.

“Imagine that same joy, but infinitely multiple and felt by God when you are born into Heaven.”

Ash Wednesday helps us return to this holiness, because through our brokenness and sin we forget it. 

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a journey in which we reform ourselves, starting back at the beginning and remind ourselves that we are dust, but raised to be nothing short of Godly. 

We repent.

“Remember that YOU are dust and to dust YOU shall return”

As the Church we support one another in recognizing and receiving the flow of the Holy Spirit, the ruach, that first breathed life into our nostrils and desires to do so over and over again. 

This is the work of the people and for the people given to us by God.

We are called to be a sacramental sign that God is still creating co-creators not for the church alone, but for the whole world. 

Our humility, acceptance and repentance leads us to create something new and more lifegiving. It leads to transformation and reformation.

At this point in time, it leads justice. 

This Lent, our parish will study scriptures, reflect, discuss, and pray about how we are called to be among the people for the people. Each Wednesday in Lent we will meet in the living room to begin the “Social Justice Bible Challenge.” We are doing this during Lent so that we might reimagine, refocus, and recommit ourselves to being cocreators, capable of seeing the divine reflected in the “other” and respond to their blessedness.

This study is but a starting place, it does not replace the work of actual living and responding. This challenge is a means of seeing and stripping away what separates us from one another and ultimately our God.

It is the starting point for forty days of reforming, repenting, and recognizing the ashen heaps of our lives so that we may with joy and celebration receive the new life that is breathed into our nostrils on Easter Sunday.

In humility, today we view ourselves as ash, but not in a worthless and tossed aside sense, but as one of the billions of cocreators that God has placed beside one another to make the world the world that God desired from the very beginning when the words 

“Let their be light” spoke into the nothingness.

In order to be that light, we must first see that light. We see it in Christ. We see it in others.

“Ven aquí! 

“Recuerda que eres polvo y al polvo volverás”

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, but through dust God’s love emerges.