Ashes to ashes

Rev’d Dr Hugh Kempster: St Peter’s Eastern Hill

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust makes real sense at the end of someone’s life. People get it. Somehow, without saying much, the words shout out the truth of mortality. It’s a popular phrase at funerals, especially when separated out from ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection’, language that doesn’t translate well beyond a religious container.

All this was cogitating within whilst I was singing at an Ash Wednesday service. Strangely there but not there. More present in the body than the mind, aware of sung words but no others. Engaged through breath, not intellect, always a hard act for me.

When I lined up to have my forehead marked with ash, there was the usual adhesive problem. The woman doing the marking laughed with me. It’s hard to get the mixture right so the ash sticks enough, but not too much, in case you want to erase your religious inclinations before stopping at the supermarket on the way home.

Mind you, depending on where you live, Ashes to Go might be available at the shops, railway station or some other random location. The idea is to draw on centuries of tradition to offer contemporary moments of grace where we live out our daily round.

I like it when ancient rituals pop up without theological explanation, with no expectation of belonging or believing. Free for the taking but loaded with manaakitangi (hospitality) as we say in Aotearoa. Hooking into the already known mortality, pain and struggle of life, yet within that, offering a moment to reflect on what matters most.

Rituals need to get you in the guts. Make you laugh, cry, gasp. Moments of awe wonder and recognition. Powerful moments that deserve recognition beyond the domain of the brain that wants to intellectualise and control everything.

I think that’s why I sing sacred music because the process runs rings around my theological brain that wants to dissect every word, on the hunt for literal lingo, ready to argue the toss. Breathing matters more than thinking at that point. Deep breathing that takes me inside myself where the truth of things runs deep.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Resist at all costs someone telling you what it’s meant to mean. Our human task is to let meaning emerge from within. Breathe, breathe deeply.

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