There’s an apocryphal origin story about the children’s game “Ring Around the Rosie”. The story goes that the rhyme accompanying the game originated in the time of the great black plague epidemics which more than decimated Europe during the Middle Ages. There are several variations of the game and the story, but one version of the last line is “Ashes, ashes; we all fall down”, which supposedly signifies death due to plague.
According to the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time dedicated to introspection and repentance and remembrance of one’s mortality. “Dust you were, and to dust you will return”. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, so the Ash Wednesday tradition of going to church in order to be reminded of the certainty of death and the need for repentance was quite alien to me when I first experienced it at fifty-something. In the Southern Baptist church, the realities of sin and death were a requisite part of every worship service. We were frequently reminded of the vileness of our sinful natures, often warned that we could drop dead between one heartbeat and the next, and always offered an altar call whereby we could demonstrate our repentance publicly. In fact, as I remember it, many Baptists looked down their noses a bit at Catholics, Episcopalians, and other churches which observed Lent for limiting the practice of repentance to once a year. We didn’t “give something up for Lent”, either. If you shouldn’t be doing it, you shouldn’t be doing it all year long, and in high school I noticed that the kind of things my friends tended to abstain from during Lent tended to be high calorie foods like bread and sweets, thus doing double duty as diet aids.
Probably partially due to my particular religious background, I never have been able to meaningfully engage in the Ash Wednesday ritual, nor in popular Lenten fasting practices. I tried the ashes-on-the-forehead thing once, and it felt artificial and odd. I gave up chocolate once for Lent; not only did I feel rather duplicitous; I didn’t even lose any weight. But also partially because of my Baptist upbringing, and likely because of my own personality, and certainly because of my age, I am no stranger to introspection and awareness of my both own mortality and moral failings. I don’t need a priest to remind me that “dust I was, dust I am, and to dust I will return”. Nor do I need to be reminded of the many ways I fall short; of the things I do that I shouldn’t do, the things I don’t do that I should do; and the mistakes I am constantly making even when I try to do the right thing. I think about that kind of stuff all the time. Add spiritual angst to all the “stuff’ that is going on in the world and in my personal life, and I can become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Then I feel guilty for that, too.
I have found it to be more spiritually rewarding, as well as psychologically healthy, when I stop ruminating and start doing. Sometimes this means attempting a new spiritual practice; the two I have found most helpful in the past few years are meditation and writing. Sometimes this means attempting to let mindfulness of the needs of others lead me to new kinds of service projects. There’s an interesting passage in Isaiah which seems to indicate that God may think along the same lines. “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?…
I think there’s a profound theological truth in the nursery rhyme. However you choose to look at it, we are mortal, made of ashes or dust or star-stuff, and someday we will die. “We all fall down”- we all make mistakes; no one is perfect and despite our best efforts, we err in ways that hurt ourselves and other people and the world in which we live. These are observations of reality that are true for theists and nontheists alike. The difference is for the Christian is that we understand death and failure differently. I understand death to be not an entropic dissolution into nothingness, but a transition much like birth. I understand that “missing the mark” is inevitable, but failure is not triumphant. God continues to work in us and through us error-prone human beings to effect positive change.
Ashes, ashes. We all fall down. But God is always there to pick us up.