Today is a unique day of remembrance in the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday. This is a day set aside for us as a community to reflect upon heavy things like death and our own struggle to love when loss is part of our reality.
Rather than paralyze you with anxiety, this day in the church calendar is meant to help motivate you to action. And it all begins with ashes.
I recently read a powerful essay by Episcopal Priest and author Barbra Brown Taylor about the beauty of ashes. Her essay published in The Christian Century "Dust to Dust" was written a mere 6 months after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. I know that many of you may not remember September 11, or perhaps were not alive then, but this moment was profoundly influential to our nation and communities.
On September 11, 2001, nineteen men associated with a radical branch of Islam called Al-Qaeda hijacked four airplanes; two were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the third hit the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth crashed in an empty field in Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people died as a result of these attacks, and it was not just the people in the planes and towers. It was also the many first responders, police, firefighters, paramedics, and ordinary people who rushed to help before the Twin Towers collapsed.
In the months after this terrible day, our televisions were flooded with images and videos of the collision of plane and building. One of the most striking images flashing across our screens was of the streets filled with clouds of smoke and layers of ash and dust. To honor the many who had lost their lives, television programs began to scroll through pictures and names of those who had died.
What made these pictures so powerful was their very ordinariness. One photo showed a young man crouching beside his smiling pit bull on a green summer day. Another showed a mother with three small children dressed up in their best outfits for Thanksgiving Day. Yet another displayed a young man surrounded by family as he graduated from college. Each one was unique, each life precious, and each life gone too fast.
Barbra Brown Taylor's essay picks up here in the aftermath of September 11, with a policeman helping to pick up the pieces. Taylor was listening to an interview of this particular policeman on the radio, and she describes his story this way:
"Many weeks after the attacks, I listened to a Port Authority policeman interviewed on the radio. As he spoke, I could hear the groaning of dump trucks in the background, the hissing and popping of cutting torches turned on steel. Thirty of his friends had died on September 11, the policeman explained, which was why he could not stay away from the site. When the reporter asked him to describe the scene for those who were listening, he talked about the relief workers who were sifting through the powdered debris on the ground, carrying two handfuls at a time over to a tarp where they searched through it for anything recognizably human. What struck him most, the policeman said, was their utter reverence for what they carried in their hands. 'It's nothing but ashes,' he said, 'and yet you should see how they touch it.'"
Yes we are mortal. Yes we are finite. And yet, each and every life is precious to God. The dust and ash you and I are made of is something to hold in reverence. You are that beloved dust. When we use ash to mark our foreheads, we are acknowledging with reverence the beauty and delicate nature of life. This ritual gives you an opportunity to remember and recognize that you are a finite being, made of elements that will all decay to dirt and ash—yet your life still has beauty, importance, and meaning.
And this is why we also need to talk about Valentine's Day. While it may seem these two things could never go together (a holiday commemorating romantic love and a solemn holy day commemorating our mortality), yet both share an important common thread: your heart. While Valentine's day focuses on the love between two people in a relationship, Ash Wednesday is about God's love for you and your love for others. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent, forty days set aside to examine your life and relationships. It's time set aside for a heart check. Your life is simply too short to let your heart be hardened by indifference or hatred. This is a season of life to ask yourself the hard questions: are you showing reverence for others in your relationships? Let the brevity of life help you strive for genuine love.
Beginning today, many Christians throughout the world will take up different spiritual habits and disciplines to help them to examine their hearts and remember God in the daily grind of life. I'd encourage you all to do the same. Pick something simple, a small change in your daily routine to check in with your heart and to remember that God loves you. This may look like reading through a book in the Bible, reading a particular poem every day, or setting aside time each evening to be silent and meditate. Whatever you choose, be sure that it draws you closer to God and helps you grow in mindfulness of your inner life.
Life is too short and too precious to spend harboring hatred or indifference to your neighbor. How will you in this season show reverence for the precious life you've been given? Your life, and every life, is beloved by God.
 Barbra Brown Taylor, "Dust to Dust: the holiness of ashes," 2 March 2002, The Christian Century https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2002-03/d...
 Matthew 6:21.