Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. -Romans 6:3-5
Do you remember singing the children’s song “Ring Around the Rosy”? The very last line goes like this: “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” As a child, I remember singing and dancing to that song, until we all fell down together on the last word before leaping back up, laughing, to do it all over again.
But then when I was about eight, an older kid told us that the song was really about people dying of the plague! When a teacher confirmed this interpretation, I was horrified. We had been playing about dying and no one had stopped us? In my childlike way, I didn’t understand death, exactly, but I was pretty sure I was supposed to be scared of it, not laugh at it!
Last Wednesday I was reminded of those words as I prepared for our Ash Wednesday worship service. The ashes went into a little bowl, and I thought of the words I would say to each person who received ashes, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In some ways, it feels like a more sophisticated but no less bleak version of the children’s song: “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
I put ashes on a lot of foreheads. Three-month-old foreheads, ninety-eight-year-old foreheads, bald foreheads, oily foreheads, healthy foreheads, sick foreheads. It’s true that one day, each and every one of those foreheads will die. Mine, too. Suddenly, death seems even less like a laughing matter.
Or does it? We have, after all, been buried with Christ in baptism. The ashes remind us that we are, in a sense, already dead. If we have been united with Christ in a death like his (and we have), then we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Faced with the reality that the only way out of death is through it, I say that we can indeed laugh at death. The power of death, which seems so final, is not even great enough to hold Jesus for three measly days. The reminder that we are dust and will return to dust reassures us that we will be reunited with all who bear this cross, with the parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends who have died and live now with Jesus.
Death thinks it can separate us from the life of Jesus and the ones we love? Hah! As if! Death has no power that Christ has not already overcome. Death is, contrary to all our expectations, truly a laughing matter. When death threatens us, we can laugh and remind ourselves that we belong to the God of life.
God of life, you marked me for death and resurrection when you claimed me as your child. Give me courage to face death with good cheer, for I know that you will bring me and all the faithful to everlasting life. Amen.