My great-grandmother on my mother’s side lived on a farm in central Connecticut. She was actually my great-step-grandmother, since my grandmother’s mother died in Europe during the First World War, having left her husband behind in Connecticut when she took my grandmother and her little sister back to Slovakia where they’d foolishly hoped the air would be good for her failing health. By the time my grandmother and her sister had returned to Connecticut their father was remarried. Though both my mother’s parents were born in this country, they had both spent time in their childhood in Slovakia, and both spoke English with noticeable accents, as though it was their second language. My grandmother was “Baba” to me; that made my great-grandmother “Baba-on-the-farm.”
Once when I was a boy of seven or eight during a family visit to Baba-on-the-farm there was a dog tied by a chain to the side of the house, or to a stake, or the garage, or some such thing. What I remember is that there was a dog and a chain.
I suppose I must have wanted to play with the dog. I cannot remember if it was especially friendly. I don’t think it was mean. The dog must have chased me: dogs do chase little boys; it’s fun. The dog must have circled around me, because my sole clear memory of that or any other visit to Baba-on-the-farm is that I ended up on the ground, my legs trapped by the dog’s chain wrapped around them, tears streaming down my face.
I am certain no damage was done. The dog did not bite me, nothing was broken, I’m not sure I even got scraped up. But, off-balance, ankles bound together by the chain, I was pulled to the ground. I was certainly scared. And boy, was I crying. And I believe my sister may have teased me, and I think I did not take it well.
Recently my great-uncle George died. He had lived his whole life on that farm, all alone after his mother, Baba-on-the-farm, died. The farm will now pass into the hands of my mother and her two cousins. I don’t believe there has been a dog there for many years. I know that I was never eager to visit the farm in my childhood; maybe it was because of the episode with the dog and the chain.
I don’t know if you have ever been tangled up in the long chain that tethers a dog to his post, or his doghouse, or whatever. I don’t know if you had a great-grandmother on a farm, or what the details of your childhood were, but I suspect that you know what it feels like to be off-balance, bound-up, scared, knocked off your feet, with the tears welling (at the very least) or maybe overflowing.
Sometimes this happens to us and we do not know why. Other times we know the culprit, or at least we think we do. Still other times we know that we have done this to ourselves. Maybe we didn’t mean to do it, maybe we didn’t realize the dog was on a chain, maybe we didn’t think he would chase us, or run around us. Maybe we thought we were fast enough, agile enough to avoid entrapment in this way, but in the end you are on the ground, feet tangled up, the dog making everything worse, and the tears are flowing – or at least they should be!
Maybe you feel this way tonight, or maybe you have recently. Maybe you can remember the time you felt this way, but it is now, thankfully, receding into the past. And maybe in your own story it is not a dog on a farm and a chain, but you know what it is: you know where it happened, what dog was chasing you, what chain you got tangled up in, what you were scared of, what caused you such pain, and brought you such tears.
I know that I have other stories, less benign and harder to share, that have left me feeling the same way: stories in which I am clearly more to blame than the dog, and in which nearly every link in the chain was forged by my own hands. But these stories, I am not so eager to share with you tonight.
I am moved every Ash Wednesday by how many people want to come to church to receive their smudge of ashes. People come early, they come at noon, they stop by during they day looking for ashes, and like you, they come late in the day, too. Denominational lines are easily crossed: Episcopalian ashes are acceptable to Christians of almost any stripe, I’m relieved to notice. And no one takes up an argument about the words I pronounce as I mark the sign of the cross on their foreheads: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. For a half a minute or so, at least, this argument seems unassailable.
I believe that those who come asking to wear this mark of mortality for an hour, or a morning, or an evening, do so in part because of the memory of the dogs who have chased them, the chains they have gotten tied up in, the frightened moments they’ve endured as they’ve been knocked to the ground, and because of the tears we’ve shed, especially when we remember that the dog, the chains, the fear were all of our own doing, could have been avoided if we’d been willing to avoid them. And I believe most of us are willing to wear this little badge of mortality – which is more a badge of shame than of honor – recognizing our own complicity in what’s left us feeling trapped, knocked down, frightened, and crying.
But I am afraid that it is easy to leave church on Ash Wednesday believing that that is all your ashes mean, that having shown up to accept your ashes as a sign of humility, and walking out the church doors with them still on your head, you may believe that the ashes are all you get, along with the not-so-cheery reminder that you are dust and to dust you shall return (an argument that may seem less compelling to you with every step you take away from here tonight, but which will be proven to be true in the end).
Nevertheless, it is not for this sign of your mortality alone that you have been called here. It is not for this message of cold finality that you have been led here. There is more. For God knows exactly what led you to that dog in the farmyard. He knows whether it was all in good fun, or carelessness, or foolhardiness, or a cocky over-assuredness that got you into this. God sees just how many turns of the chain have wrapped around your legs, how tight they are becoming, how many twists there are. God knows how hard you hit the ground when you fell, and he knows that your tears are not just because of this dog, this chain, this fall to the ground, they are for so much more than that; they are for everything that has ever knocked you to the ground before. And God knows that you feel trapped there in the dirt, with the dog still yapping, and the chain still tightening around your ankles, and you are gasping for breath between your sobs and your secret inner wailings for someone to help you, to stop this damn dog, un-do this chain, and give you a hand.
God has not called you here to tease you, to make you feel silly or stupid or guilty for the things that you have done or that have been done to you that have, from time to time, landed you on your butt in tears. God has called you here to help you up, to un-bind the chain, to shoo the dog into his corner, and to wipe the tears from your face. And as God is coming to your side to help you up, he is asking, as I am sure my mother or my grandmother or my father – whichever it was that rushed to my side – must have said to me, “Tell me what happened…?”
And tonight we are asked to use this act of humility to help us tell the truth about all that, to be honest, especially about the things we have done that we shouldn’t have done, and the things we might have done but failed to do.
Because God intends for us all to inherit his kingdom, when we have become nothing but dust in this world. And the path to that inheritance demands of us an honest accounting of our sins, even as it promises freedom from the weight of them.
So if you came here tonight for the ashes, so be it, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But if you have honestly and humbly also come here tonight to lay your sins – which have left you trapped, sobbing and dirty – to lay these at God’s feet, begging his forgiveness and asking him to help you get up, then you are leaving with far more than a cross of ashes on your head. You are leaving as an inheritor of the kingdom of God. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Ash Wednesday 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia