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Thinking Out Loud

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 17, 2015
Ash Wednesday
If there's an equivalent of the "urban legend" for nursery rhymes, one of the most popular is related to:

Ring around the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

I have heard it said - with great authority in Ash Wednesday sermons no less - that this nursery rhyme is about the plague. In fact, this is pretty doubtful.

The dates of the origin of the rhyme (c. late eighteenth century by the oldest estimates) just don't fit the plague hypothesis: not nearly old enough for the Black Death, and the symptoms don't fit the plague that swept England in the mid-seventeenth century. The plague explanation for the rhyme first occurs in the twentieth century, anyway. (See The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren and The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, both by Iona and Peter Opie.) So let's leave medical explanations to one side, shall we?

Let's just say that as I've been driving around town recently, seeing signs going up at local churches reminding the faithful that Ash Wednesday is on our doorstep, my mind keeps going back to the children's rhyme. Not because it cryptically speaks of plagues. Nor even because of its eerie echo of the words every minister has spoken at the graveside, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." I've been thinking about the nursery rhyme because it reminds me that "we all fall down." And not just physically.

"We all fall down." As it happens, this is the central message of Ash Wednesday. The collect for the day from the old Book of Common Prayer reads:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

There's something in this prayer that gives me hope whenever I feel mired in guilt and regret.

Apparently when God creates a "new heart" in us, it is a "contrite" heart. When we take this "new heart" out for a spin, we find ourselves "worthily lamenting our sins." When God renews one's heart, in other words, the new heart is much too busy acknowledging its own wretchedness to go around judging others.

I find this fact strangely comforting, and just a little bit disturbing. Because it means that whenever I'm engaged in righteously looking down on the behavior of others and judging them, I am not acting from a new heart. I'm likely acting from an old and cold one.

This leads me to make a modest proposal for Lent. In addition to or instead of the usual things we give up, let's give up judging others. At least for Lent, let's just go on a "judgment fast."

We can pray that God will create in us "new and contrite hearts" so that we can worthily lament our own sins and acknowledge our own wretchedness. But even here, let's lament, but leave the judgment of ourselves to God. We're just not qualified to engage in the judgment business, however good at it we may think we are.

One of the traditional readings for Ash Wednesday is Joel 2:12-13 which reads:

Turn even unto me, says the Lord, with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning. Rend your heart, and not your clothing, and turn to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and great in kindness …

According to the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the goals of contrition are that we may be bathed in the love and mercy and grace of God, so that we may extend the love, mercy and grace we have received toward others.

"Ashes, ashes, we all fall down." None of us is immune to falling. Let's help one another up this Lent.

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