One habit I’ve developed over the years of being a regular church goer is after a major feast, like Christmas for instance, I usually look ahead to “the next big liturgical season”, in this case Lent and Holy Week. Now, fair enough if you’re planning liturgies or coordinating schedules. But when I was growing up (and this year too!), I started preparing for Lent by listening to the Lenten liturgical cds I have on my laptop early in January. To be honest, it does feel a bit weird to be listening to penitential chant with the Christmas tree still up. But as Canon Malcolm will tell you, “Nelson, he’s just a little bit weird.” And my mother will tell you the same thing.
Last month, however, I attended a service at a crematorium just outside Liverpool. I got the “grand tour” of the facilities, and saw the way the coffins move from the chapels through the process to result in a small urn of ashes in the end. Now, I’ve been acolyting and assisting at funerals since maybe age 10, so I’m somewhat used to being around human remains and cremains. In fact, over January I played the organ for two funeral services at St. Margaret’s, Toxteth (and would have also at the crematorium but the organ didn’t work). But before my visit to the “crem,” I had yet to see the inner workings of the cremation process.
Being in the crematorium reminded me of the words used in the BCP 1979 for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” No matter who we are or what we do in this life—basket weaving, softball, or ritual satanism—we will all one day leave it and return to the earth in one way or another.
Ash Wednesday is a reminder of more than our mortal coil, however; the day is also a glaring reminder of our present condition: dust. Made in the divine image and ruach-filled we may be, but we are still made of what began as a dusty collection of molecules and atoms. Wondrously made, and yet dust. “You are dust.”
When the Liverpool Cathedral Learning Community convened for two days this past month, I had the opportunity of hearing research updates from several folks who have made progress on various projects I heard about in September, at our last meeting. One rural-based vicar is working on a project trying to understand why the tiny parish of which he is priest has such high numbers on a Sunday, which using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in the low church tradition as its mode of worship. I will never forget his comment of a frequent fear he has, that, “I’m worried that we’re a museum,” that is, doing Christianity in an older way but not really getting anything out of it.
Christianity has been accused of many things, not the least of which is this idea of being a museum, where liturgy and words and music happen but not much else. I think of Marx’s critique of religion as being the “opiate of the masses,” only a deluded escape from the world controlled by the powerful and not effectual for real change or improvement in the world in which we live.
Now, I will grant you that Christianity is weird. We wear weird clothes (mozettas and chasubles and rochets, oh my), do weird things (drink blood and eat flesh), and read weird books (the Bible). We often meet in old and grand buildings and also in storefronts. We have many ways of organizing—or not organizing—ourselves. And we all have something to say about this Jesus Christ who has called us into His service which has a major impact on our lives and how we live them. Heck, we spend forty days each year being reminded that we are dust. To be dust is our vocation. The same atomic dust that makes up the stars of the heavens and the creatures of the deep also make up our inmost parts.
The radical thing about Christianity is that we don’t do this alone, all this dusty work. We are called by Christ to be active in His service, which means serving our neighbors. Here in Liverpool Cathedral, that means we’re engaged in feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. And too, there are hungry people who come to the Cathedral for a moment of quiet, prayer, in a beautiful space; set apart from the business of the world for reflection and contemplation. Where we can get in touch with our dustiness and start acting like it.
We are dust, to dust we shall return, and in spite of that, or in fact, because of that, we work together to change the world in which we live. Weird, yes. Bizarre, yes. But our founder was a carpenter’s son who got some fishermen and a few other guys together to teach and heal and transform the world. And we still are being transformed 2,000 down the ages. With that track record, I’d say that we’re just weird enough to leave a world with more love in it than when we found it.
Dust thou art. Dust we are. And we’re all dust together.
Thanks for reading this update on my missionary blog! I’m a missionary of The Episcopal Church, serving in Liverpool, UK. Make sure to subscribe at the bottom of the home page to get an email when I next post an update. God bless, and thank you!
Eager to read more? Check out the “Meet the YASCers” page of the website of the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) of the Episcopal Church to find the blogs of my missionary colleagues: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/YASC/meet-yascers.