Topic: Ash Wednesday
In 1574 a large new clock was unveiled at the Strasbourg Cathedral. All clocks locate us, kind of like a map for where I am in time rather than place. Most of the time we use clocks on our wrist or walls that locate us within a single day—or really a half day. Calendars orient us to a given week, month, or year and our clocks locate us down to the second within that span. But the clock at Strasbourg was meant to locate us differently. The modern one is from the 1800s but holds the same basics as the original. Multiple layers stand intertwined one atop another, the foundation of which is an astronomical clock meant to measure the movement of earth within the larger galaxy. Our time begins by locating us within the vastness of all that has been made. The movement in that foundational clock turns and points to various times of the church year, including (amazingly) the moving feast days that shift on the calendar from year to year. It's a phenomenal mechanical work.
A narrow band stretches above this foundation with what we might think of as normal time: the seven days of the week, locating us in a cycle that moves not around but across; we pass through the week. Two sculptures hold up the 24-hour cycle of the clock in that band, on one side a figure of the good death and on the other a figure of bad, unfaithful death. And woven around it are figures depicting sin and death, redemption, feasting. We locate our moment within the whole created realm as those who are mortal. As if to make sure we do not miss the point, above these you find a progression tied to the chiming throughout the hours that shift different figures in front us, moving from youth to old age: the quarter of the hour an infant takes center view, at the half hour a youth, at the third quarter of the hour an adult, and at the close of the hour is old age.
There are seven or eight different levels to this enormous clock, with the figure of Isaiah standing at the peak holding a banner warning of God's justice, and just below that an image of Jesus that itself moves within the time: holding the banner of his cross and emerging each day at twelve noon to bless first his followers who parade in front of him in the clockwork and at the climax Peter, who is restored every day at noon.*
We use a watch to locate us in our busy schedules, calendars to track what we do and how we can budget our time. We think of time as a thing we spend in various ways and the clock helps us as we go about spending our allotted time on earth. But time in this clock works differently. We are located not in the small portions of time that we imagine ourselves, where we talk about budgeting the hours or spending the time. Rather we see ourselves located in this enormous sweep of history, of the whole of the heavens and the earth; part of those who come and age and go, all life framed inside the passing of generations under the restoring work of God in Jesus Christ.
Time in this clock is not something that you budget; it is a way of finding yourself in something far larger. We are found within time; not as those who hold and measure time. A recent book on what it means to be mortal in this life says:
Our lives... are best seen not simply as time spent but as time offered, because they have been offered to us by God. [Radner, Time to Keep, 5]
A clock of this sort pushes us towards that settled reality. Our lives are not about time spent or budgeted or used. Our lives are time offered to us; God calling us and setting us inside this enormous world that has kept turning along for generations and generations, and (should God desire it) for generations and generations to come. We remember our mortality, not in a morbid manner or to make us dark and dreary. We remember our mortality in order to remember our lives as time offered to us by God.
We spend most of our worries locating ourselves within such a tiny snippet of time and space, never bothering to stop and look up at the whole. And there are reasons for that; it can be unnerving. The vastness of the universe might, for some, be a sight of beauty but it can also be almost unbearable for others.
We have lost the night sky in the city. We hardly see it. We hear promises to Abraham that he will have children as many as the stars in the sky and we have to turn to a book to get some idea of what that might mean. And seeing it in a book is, even for this book-lover, not even close to the same thing. The greatness of the universe was the constant companion for most of the history of the world, a nightly reminder of our being so small and (in ourselves) insignificant. But for all that, locating ourselves as so small can be unnerving.
In one of Joseph Conrad's novels, a character remarks:
"It was one of those dewy, clear, starry nights, oppressing our spirit, crushing our pride, by the brillian evidence of the awful loneliness, of the hopeless obsccure insignificance of our globe lost in the splendid revelation of a glittering, soulless universe. I hate such skies." (Joseph Conrad, Chance, 51)
We have lost the clear, starry nights; we have not lost the notion of feeling alone in the world. A feeling that is heightened here by the very thing that could (to another) speak of beauty. But that it is so beautiful does not mean it holds less terror. I cannot help but wonder if the beauty heightens or even adorns the terror. The grandeur of a soulless universe can be overwhelming precisely because of our being so small. So impotent. Our lives glimmer and stop glimmering. And the distances and size of the hundreds of billions of galaxies that swirl up there, now out of sight, put in stark relief how small I am. How unnoticed and, we are tempted to think, unnoticeable.
So we return to the clock in Strasburg: locating ourselves first by the movement of the swirl of just these enormous and distant bodies slowly turning and moving themselves. But here we are not unnoticeable, certainly not unnoticed. Here in this clock we are given our lives as time offered to us. We are given a place within that movement, our mortality framed by the great things that God is doing and that he continues to do.
We do not have to puff up to find a place within the huge sweep of reality; we do not have to pretend it does not exist in order to squeak by. And we do not have to throw up our hands and declare that this enormous sweep makes me meaningless, a happenstance, a faint glimmer that cannot even be close to being seen in this whole scope. At the top of the clock Jesus stands, seeing, forgiving, and restoring Peter.
To remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return is a sobering remembrance, but not a morbid one. We do not place death on our foreheads, but a reminder of our mortality—locating ourselves honestly. It's among the most indisputable claims of the Christian faith, even if we aren't there to witness it ourselves: that we shall return to dust. So we remind ourselves of it each year, pull our eyes away from the speed of our little tiny slices of clocks, and get a larger view.
In Anglican practice (as most traditions through the ages) we put a small cross with oil on the forehead right after a baptism, anointing the now-clean and sanctified person into work that Christ now calls them to as his own. It is no accident that we set the ashes exactly in that place as a cross. Our mortality itself is sanctified, tied to our baptism: we are washed clean, made pure, and even the fact of our mortality comes to us as those found in Christ.
"Dust you are and to dust you shall return" is not a statement of defeat. It is a statement of reality, sanctified for us the baptized. We live this mortal life as those who do not belong to ourselves, but to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. Our lives are time that is offered to us and made holy.
So I encourage you to come and begin this season of Lent remembering our mortal life. Locate yourself as mortal, with all the promise and joy and grief that it always means for all of us. We pass small lives, beautifully set in an enormous world like a master jeweller who has offered us the time of our mortal life. And for the season of Lent we respond to that gift with fasting, with repentance, and with care for the poor. All things that take us out of ourselves and locate us into the larger world.
* Description taken from the opening pages of Ephraim Radner, A Time to Keep.