"Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down"

Ash Wednesday.C.22
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

As we have discovered, in the midst of a pandemic, churches have had to be creative. Last year, Susan Craver’s parish in Basalt, Colorado sent out the following notice to parishioners: “Because of Covid restrictions, we are not having the imposition of ashes at St. Peter’s of the Valley”. Instead of their normal Ash Wednesday service, a small package of ashes was delivered to each household which included a small sack of ashes. Life, being what it is, the sack of ashes was inadvertently left out of some packages but was delivered later. Sue reports: “Mine was mistakenly left next door at my daughter’s with the paper sack labeled, “Sue Craver’s ashes.” It gave my daughter quite a start. She goes on to say: “We had quite a laugh at dinner that night! “I didn’t even know she’d been sick!” said my daughter, followed by “Is this how they tell you?”

Humor on Ash Wednesday? Well, why not? Certainly we know enough about the sinful side of humanity—it’s facing us on every side. Environmental catastrophe looms in the not so distant future; Russia wages war against Ukraine, starvation ravages people in Afghanistan and portions of Africa, refugees wait at the border, the pandemic continues to take lives with abandon, Greed, corruption and disinformation all seem to be winning the day. Sorrow abounds. Dare we wonder if death, indeed, holds the winning hand.

Into this depressing panorama, I would like to remind you of a children’s game—one which I played as a child—and perhaps you did as well. “Ring around the rosie.” Holding hands, my friends and I would skip in a circle and sing the following ditty: “Ring around the rosie, pockets full of posies; ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” And then we’d collapse on the ground, laughing hysterically only to get up to do it all over again.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned the origins of this childhood game. Like many children’s rhymes, it comes from the murky past and its words hold less innocent connotations.

It’s a rhyme about the Black Death. Eventually, the words would be written down in the 1800s; however, it’s origins are much earlier and date from the 1300’s to the 16th century. We know now that the Plague came from the fleas off the backs of infected rats that were brought on ships to the European harbors from Central Asia; but for the people living in the Middle Ages, this was a mystery that wouldn’t be unraveled for centuries. The Plague was an awful disease. Its victims suffered from boils, fever, chills, seizures, muscle pain, headache and rashes that went from red to black before death made it’s appearance. No one knew why it arose or how to combat its appearing. It’s arrival brought terror, fear and grief, and somehow (as it is with the ways of children) a rhyme as well.

A closer look at the rhyme helps illuminate its meaning. The “ring around the rosies” refers to the red rings that started to develop on the plague victim’s skin. The “pockets full of posies” stems from the belief that disease was spread through bad smells, which meant that people held bunches of flowers to their faces when going out in public. Call to mind those scary beak masks we associate with plague doctors from the Middle ages, well—the beak was filled with flowers and other strong scents as a means of protection. The phrase “Ashes, ashes” has two possible meanings. The first is that it mimics a sneezing sound, in reference to being sick. The other is that it’s actually about the burning of the dead bodies from the victims of the plague. And “We all fall down” is a pretty clear reference to death.

A rather gruesome children’s game, you might think. But I believe, in the midst of its horrifying theme, it holds a startling hope. The children who engage in this play—they fall down, they laugh, and they get up. They get up! They rise. Oh, it’s true enough, that the rhyme is about death—but it ends in laughter and a rising, which itself mimics the resurrection—and getting up, well, that’s part of the play as well—if we do it right! We can learn a great deal about how to engage with life by simply looking at the way children play. There is hope in the midst of that rhyme. There’s delight in the midst of sorrow and loss.

Jack Gilbert, in his poem “A Brief for the Defense” writes: “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make (outrage at) injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the devil.”

Here’s a thought. Give consideration this Lent to risking an engagement not simply with those aspects of this holy season which we so easily associate with regret, loss and sorrow; and instead, resolve to engage with delight. Renounce and repent—certainly. Work towards a turning of your heart, but not simply to feel bad about yourself and a world in which so much appears to be going wrong—but in order to renew a sense of hope, purpose and delight—to move from falling down (and staying there) to rising up. To be like the children acting out a rhyme—practicing resurrection until it is made real in our mind and spirit.

Professor Susan Windley-Daoust, writes: “I have long believed that we as a community more than anything else, sin against hope. We are so ready to change the world for the better, and in ways that I think are largely right and just, but sometimes the frantic and determined causes (which we champion) seem to mask a despair that, if we don’t succeed, no one else will. We seem to forget about this God of the promise who pledged to be with us until the end of the age. Without hope in the living God, we and all our projects (right and just though they may be) will ultimately burn out like an unbanked fire.

These ashes that you will receive today—they are not simply a reminder of death—that we will all “fall down”. These ashes—they are mixed with the oil of baptism—they a reminder of who we are “Ashes and dust”, but more than this, they are also a reminder of whose we are—beloved children of God. We fall down—of course we do! But laughing and with delight, we shall arise. In Jesus’ name. Amen.