My friend Daniel was only 21 years old when he received the diagnosis. When the pain in his abdomen developed around Thanksgiving, he and his parents assumed appendicitis. But after tests, the diagnosis came that it was a rare and aggressive form of cancer in his liver. Thus began months of treatment. They didn’t have easy answers, but they did have Daniel’s resolve and expertise as a nurse-in-training, plus the relentless love of his parents — Dr. Mary Foskett, a professor at Wake Forest, and Scott Hudgins, a coordinator with CBF of North Carolina. It all led them to exhaust every option, including a recent trip to MD Anderson in Houston. It was there that amidst the treatment Daniel’s condition worsened, and he died on Tuesday morning, slipping into the mystery of God’s eternal care.
It’s wrenching. I was shattered as I read the news yesterday. So much so that I didn’t even really notice the last line of his mother’s message, until I read it today — this day: “We are remaining in Houston until we can travel home with Daniel’s ashes.”
“Remember you are dust. And to dust you shall return.”.
Well, we don’t need the reminder.
Because we’re weeping for a friend.
We’re grieving with the church member who lost a sister.
We’re comforting a beloved 4th grade teacher, mourning the loss of a father to COVID-19.
We’re surrounding the friend who is completing chemotherapy.
We’re remembering the saint approaching a critical surgery.
We’re praying for the pastor caring for his mother.
We’re overwhelmed by the news of war.
We’re restless with the conflicts and complexities within ourselves.
And that’s just today. That’s the reality of pain, just in 24 hours within the radius and reach of this church.
We don’t need the reminder smeared across our forehead. We get it. We remember well that we are dust. We grasp what the ash is saying to us tonight. We remember what we’re made of, and to what our earthly form will return. The ash tells us what we already know.
But then it’s not merely ash tonight, but ash in the shape of a cross. It’s more than a smudge, without form or purpose. It’s more than a symbol, even. A cross is a particular kind of mark. A cross is more like a scar. Or a wound. And we know about that, too.
Church is a collection of people who are wounded. And while the ashes tell us what we already understand about human frailty and suffering, the cross might tell us something we so often forget: that we are not alone in our pain. That our suffering is not without notice and not without meaning. And that the limitations and pain we know tie us together not merely with a wide community of care and support — not merely with fellow Christians whose lives are marked in the same way — but even more with God, who in Christ knows what it is to be wounded.
In his book, The Wounded Healer, Father Henri Nouwen shares a story from the Talmud — the tradition of rabbinical Judaism:
A rabbi went to the prophet Elijah and said to him,
“Tell me—when will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?” said the Rabbi.
“He’s sitting at the gates of the city,” said Elijah.
“But how will I know which one is he?” the Rabbi asked.
To which the Prophet said, “He is the one sitting among the poor, covered with wounds.”
It’s not an ashen smudge. It’s an ashen cross. A cross telling us of the one who is known not merely through his power or might, but even more through his wounds. “Look at my hands and feet,” he says appearing to his disciples in resurrected form. “Place your hand here… touch and see that it is me…”
Nicholas Wolterstorff was a philosophy professor at Yale who years ago lost his young son, Eric, in a mountain climbing accident in Austria at age 25. From his grief he wrote a book some of you might know, Lament for a Son — a beautiful expression of his honest wrestling with his loss and his love for his son. This is what Wolterstorff says about that episode of Jesus appearing to the disciples with his wounds:
“‘Put your hand into my wounds,’ said the risen Jesus, ‘and you will know who I am.’ The wounds of Jesus are his identity. They tell us who he is. He did not lose them. They went down into the grave with him and they came up with him – visible, tangible, palpable. Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds. To believe in Christ’s rising from the grave is to accept it as a sign of our own rising from our graves… but we do not lose our wounds… I bear the wounds of my son’s death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.”
Once those disciples touched Jesus’ wounds, don’t you think they started to feel their own bodies? Don’t you think they could better recognize their own pain? And where they felt they were wounded or scarred, it told them they were not forgotten or lost or wasted or discarded. It told them that they were like him.
Tonight, we receive the ash. And we know what it tells us. Even a smudge is enough to remind us. We get it.
But let’s also receive the cross, and remember what we sometimes forget. Yes, that we are dust. Yes, that we are mortal. Yes, that we are frail, and fragile, and easily broken. But also, that we are like the one who even in rising, still bore the marks on his hands, his feet, his side… and his forehead.
The marks we bear tonight don’t just tell us we’re wounded. They tell us what God can do with wounded people like us.