I’ve been a fan of the playwright John Patrick Shanley for years now. He wrote the screenplay for Moonstruck; he also wrote the play Doubt. His Twitter presence is both strange and profound, in turns.
I like the way he writes, because he manages to find the mystical in ordinary people and circumstances, and then make it approachable and funny. (I still quote the final breakfast scene from Moonstruck, where the old man bursts into tears because he’s confused.)
Anyway, here’s how I managed to quote Olympia Dukakis in a sermon about Ash Wednesday (and get in a joke about Oscar Accountants.)
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
March 1, 2017
Ash Wednesday, Year A
In the movie Moonstruck, the character Olympia Dukakis plays, named Rose, is really concerned about her husband, Cosmo. She thinks he’s cheating on her (he is.). It’s not so much the fact of this that concerns her, as the why of it that bothers her. So she asks everyone she comes across why he would make such a dumb choice–why do men chase women. (And the script takes pains to illustrate what a dumb choice it is.)
She doesn’t’ actually listen to the theories of various characters, however. Her own theory she voices early on– “I think,” she intones” that it is because he is afraid of death.” As if on cue, her erstwhile husband returns home, and Rose, emboldened by her breakthrough, greets him with “Cosmo, I just want you to know; no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.” Cosmo, entirely confused, thanks her.
Seems like a very Ash Wednesday type scene to me, because really, death is something we have a hard time with. In the 21st century, we put a lot of time and energy into staving off death, denying its existence, talking around it, sanitizing it…and yet, it remains. Fixed and immutable.
To be clear, I don’t encourage death. Please don’t hear me saying that. It’s sad when people die. It’s tragic when we lose loved ones before their time. Medical progress is good. Preventing disease, combating physical ailments, all good.
And yet, for all the magic medical advances, for all the progress we’ve made, behold, death remains. For each and every one of us. Death is a constant, whether or not we acknowledge it.
Now, for some, that constant leads us to make really bad decisions. Either because we want to avoid death at all costs, or we figure that since death is inevitable, then what does it matter? YOLO, as the youthz say. Mortality looms like a really giant elephant in the corner of our lives, and if we don’t acknowlege it, then we spend a lot of time dealing with its demands.
But see, we have Ash Wednesday. One day a year, wherein we come to church, and we smear ashes on our forehead, and we recall that, like Cosmo, no matter what we do, we’re gonna die. We are dust, and to dust shall we return.
This can sound fairly gruesome, but I think it’s meant to be freeing. On this day, the Church reminds us that there is nothing we can do to escape mortality….and so we no longer need to work so hard on that project.
Instead, we are asked a question–given that we are dust, and we are returning to dust–what shall we do with this time in between? This time we are given, in this mortal life, if we aren’t hoarding it, if we aren’t using it to find loopholes in this game, then how shall we spend this time?
Isaiah reminds us that we, like those accountants at the Oscars, really only have one job. We are to love. We are to love God, to love one another. We are to spend this life in the work of love. It is precisely because we have a limited time on this earth that we are called to work so hard for a world of justice, a world of peace, freedom and love for everyone. Because all of humanity is as fragile, as limited as we are, God asks us to make this short life better. Make this fragile life all it can be. For them and for us. As we all face the same limitations. So be repairers of streets to live in. Be restorers of the breach. Spend your time on earth working to make it a better place for the fragile creatures who will come after you.
Because ultimately, what we are assured of is that even though we are going to die, God is right here with us. We may be mortal, but God does not abandon us, not even to death. Jesus Christ died too, so that we would know the power of God even in the midst of death. Even in the midst of the mortality that so shadows our lives. Our mortality doesn’t define us, doesn’t limit us. God breathes life into our very dust, and helps us to build this world, in the time we have, into the dream of God.
So maybe we are just dust in the wind. Maybe we are going to die. But that is not all we are. And while we are here, for as long as we are here, with God’s help, we have a job.