A funny thing happened to me as I was lurching out of Lent’s somber twilight toward the hope-filled Festival of the Resurrection. I tripped over the Grateful Dead, specifically the rock group’s 1987 album, “In The Dark.” Therein lay a surprising treasure. When my youngest son, Kevin, listened incessantly to the Dead, I zoned out. The music seemed grating, and I had to work too hard to pick up the lyrics. My loss, it seems.
The Dead wrote a piece called, “Throwing Stones,” whose poignant lyrics chronicle and lament a cultural and personal wasteland, and flavor the dark side of our Lenten journey. Envisioning this blue marble called Earth up close and personal, the lyricist writes somewhat despairingly:
A peaceful place or so it looks from space,
A closer look reveals the human face …
There’s a fear down here we can’t forget,
Hasn’t got a name just yet, always awake,
Always around, singing ashes to ashes,
All fall down.
“Ashes to ashes, all fall down,” lifted loosely from the childhood rhyme, “London Bridge is Falling Down,” is the Grateful Dead’s morose take on the human condition. Of course, Lent inserts its own cryptic commentary when on Ash Wednesday we believers receive the ash-framed mark of Christ under the rubric, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That, of course, is not intended as a dagger in the heart, but somewhat as a wake-up call, an invitation to open one’s eyes and see life’s fragility and, if nothing else, to look back over one’s shoulder and murmur, “Hmmmm.”
I was a conspicuous member of the vaunted Ash Mob, those hearty souls from St. Philip’s who offered “Ashes-to-Go” in a variety of Tucson locations on Ash Wednesday: bus stations, Starbucks, the YMCA, etc. Our experiences were kaleidoscopic as we interfaced with children, adults, babies, a mixture of race and culture, working class, retired, homeless, all bleeding surprise, rejection, tears, acceptance, relief, wonder, and hope. People who could not get to their church on Ash Wednesday (and some who had not seriously considered going at all), found the Church coming to them. Imagine! The “emergent Church” actually emerging. Reflecting on our “Ashes to Go” sortie, taking the Church to the people, I remembered a great story — from Dostoevsky perhaps — about abject prisoners who, in a gulag setting on Christmas Day, were watching the pilgrims entering and leaving the hilltop cathedral, while the prisoners apparently were being forgotten. However, later in the day a priest could be seen descending the hill toward the prison, hopefully to offer Christ’s Mass. With one voice they cried, “At last, God is coming to us!”, to which the priest responded, “Not true. God is always with you; He only goes to the cathedral on special occasions.” There is more good theology here than first meets the eye.
Lent is not the morbid musicality oozing from the Grateful Dead’s lyrical “Ashes, ashes, all fall down.” Lent is decidedly counter-cultural. In the face of what is, it shouts that the Not Yet is on the way. At heart, Lent is a tough-love journey, not toward claiming something we have never been, but rather toward reclaiming through God’s extravagant grace what we were always meant to be, and are, though admittedly at times distorted, disfigured, even deformed. You see, in Lent’s ashes we are the color-coded people of Hope.
—John W. Smith