by the Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford, Canon Chancellor at Southwark Cathedral and author of “God, Gender, Sex and Marriage”
This week, ashes were smeared on my forehead as the following words were spoken: “you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
They are words from the book of Genesis, spoken by God to Adam and Eve as he exiles them from the Garden of Eden and curses them with mortality.
Each year, as members of my congregation have knelt in front of me to receive this same smear of ashes, I have found this to be a moment of recognition, of accepting their frailty and mine. As I touched the skin of the woman whose bones and veins could be seen through her paper thin skin, noticed the fresh scars on the wrists of the young girl who couldn’t look me in the eye, remembered the cancer sulking in the young father’s blood stream, I would find myself wondering, “Will you be ash by this time next year?”
Ash Wednesday is a powerful symbolic reminder of our mortality and frailty. Our attention is drawn to our bodies, with all their vulnerability to weariness, to pain and to suffering.
Our society prefers to hide away this view of bodies.
In the so called “developed” world we spend a fortune keeping our bodies clean, removing the hair from them, scenting them, painting them. We mask the signs of ageing with hair dye and Botox. If bodies don’t conform to the socially constructed ideal they are punished, with diets, exercise, surgery. And when the people who spend all their time making their bodies look lovely for our consumption take their eye off the project, the paparazzi snap at them with their long lenses and we mock their less than groomed, toned or perfect bodies as we click the Facebook bait, or take a sneaky look at the Daily Mail sidebar of shame.
Anxiety about cleanliness and beauty has its roots in a real recognition of our vulnerability.
In the days before hand gel and antibiotics, there was little protection against the germs lurking in the dirt that made people sick. Dust around the house was not just a sign of slovenliness, but a danger to health. Dirty children carried lice and nits, scabies and worms.
But our healthy fear of illness and contagion spread to anxiety about other things of the body, things that do not make us ill but do make us squirm. The taboo over menstrual blood for example, tellingly referred to by my mother as “the curse”, is not related to the fear of infection but to deeply internalised feelings of shame about something that is “dirty”.
The proximity of our sexual organs and our excretory system also seems to lead to anxiety and avoidance, to the use of euphemisms and squeamishness. People whose bodies and desires do not conform to the normative have to endure the squeamishness or prurience of others who are responding from primitive anxieties rooted in fear of contagion, and have often internalised a sense of shame for this reason.
The movement that offers to mark people with glitter and ash on Ash Wednesday is attempting to make this connection visible. It’s not for me, I’m more likely to associate glitter with childhood craft projects than gay identity, but I get it. The dust is personal, it is the stuff we are made of, and how lovely if that is glittery as well!
The purity laws of the Jews were an attempt to banish every kind of pollution, not just from the dangers of dirt, but from the dangers of contagion by false religion. All the those rules in the book of Leviticus are about separating the pure from the impure, the holy from the unholy. The things of God were so holy that no-one could touch them.
Until God became dust, not only inhabiting the world of dust, but inhabiting a material body, made of the same dust. God became vulnerable just like us. I dare to imagine that his mother had to wipe the snot from his nose, that there were days when his muscles ached in the carpentry shop, when his feet were sore from walking, when he was tired and hungry. The gospels tell us that he cried, and sweated and bled.
But Jesus was not afraid of contagion, particularly not of the religious kind.
The clearest example of this, though there are many, is the incident when he is touched in the crowd by the woman who has been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. As a result, she has been ritually unclean, avoided by her pious neighbours. In desperation, she reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. This action does not contaminate him, but heals her. She is not only healed in her body, but we might hope, healed from the effects of social isolation and shame.
God transforms our materiality, by becoming dust He hallows it, and then finally He transforms it. The quality of risen dust, the resurrected body of Jesus, is beyond our imagining. Yet, we are assured that this is the future for us too. As the funeral service says, our frail bodies will be transformed that they may be conformed to the glorious body of Jesus.