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Reverence for Ashes

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.”

Listening to him turned Ash Wednesday inside out for me, so that when I went to kneel at the rail this year I received a different sacrament. The gospel of the day is not about the poverty of flesh so much as it is about the holiness of ashes, which are worthy of all reverence. It was God who decided to breathe on them, after all, God who chose to bring them to life. We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but in the meantime our bodies are sources of deep revelation for us. They are how we come to know both great pain and great pleasure. They help us to recognize ourselves in one another. They are how God gets to us, at the most intimate and universal level of all.

Bodies frighten us too, of course—not only when they are sick or dirty but also when they are passionate or demanding—which may be why we are so often tempted to think of ourselves as essential spirits instead. But believers in the word made flesh are called to resist that temptation, even as we have ashes pressed into our foreheads. Those ashes are not curses. They are blessings instead, announcing God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind of shape it is in.

- Barbara Brown Taylor, "Dust to dust: The holiness of ashes," The Christian Century, March 27, 2002

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