March 5, 2014
Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. Nobody knows where the nursery rhyme comes from. Some believe it was children’s game from Germany, where youngsters circled around a rose bush in bloom before tumbling down. Others believe it emerged in the rotten British air; if you put your nose in a pocket full of posies and it didn’t smell so bad. Still others infer it from a time of pestilence and plague, as disease make one’s cheeks rosey, before they sneezed and tumbled down.
You know why I chose it for tonight. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
It does say “all” fall down. I presume that means all of us. Whether it is a slip on an icy sidewalk or a moral tumble down the public staircase, falling is our human predicament. Sometimes it is the force of gravity that pulls us down. Other times we learn the hard way that none of us stand upright all the time. We fall. When we fall, we break.
Shortly before he died, the great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen traded letters with a newspaper writer in New York. The writer’s name was Fred, and he had interviewed him for the Times. They struck up a friendship and kept in touch. One day on a street corner on Columbus Avenue, Fred said, “Why don’t you write about the spiritual life for people like me and my friends?” Nouwen stepped to the challenge, and began writing a book called Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.
In the course of writing the book, Fred’s life fell apart. He went through some painful bumps, an unexpected divorce, and declared himself a broken man. “Of course you are,” said Henri. “All of us are broken, in some way or another.” We are broken by disappointments, broken by the things we do and the things done unto us. We all fall down.
Fred said, “Henri, you say we are beloved and blessed. How does that fit with the pain that I feel?” Henri thought about it carefully, and then he wrote:
The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. This is not as easy as it sounds. The powers of the darkness around us are strong, and our world finds it easier to manipulate self-rejecting people than self-accepting people. But when we keep listening to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us… What seemed intolerable becomes a challenge. What seemed a reason for depression becomes a source of purification. What seemed punishment becomes a gentle pruning. What seemed rejection becomes a way to a deeper communion.
In other words, ashes, ashes, we all fall down . . . and we can get up again.
This is Ash Wednesday. It’s the day to speak the truth. God already knows when and where we have slipped. When we approach God with Psalm 51, we are owning up to who we are and what we always be: a blessed people broken. We are the Body of Christ, blessed and broken and beloved. Just like Jesus.
We are invited to admit our sin, but to never allow it to be the only thing that defines us. We return to God with our hearts broken open. We will be purged and washed, cleansed and made brighter than the grey snow that lingers around us. This cleansing will be God’s doing . For all who are honest enough to say “we all fall down,” the Gospel is that God will lift us up.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1995) 79.