Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Amen.
The language of physics is like poetry to me; I do not attempt to know or understand or make sense of it, I read it for its possibility and not for its certainty, I make meaning with it but I do not claim to know what it means. In other words, I stand before you with a very miniscule understanding of anything having to do with anything cosmic or even molecular, but with a profound love of the strange and wonderful images and questions that these concepts stir in me.
Take the notion that we are all made of stardust, that has been popularized over time by astrophysicists and pop-science gurus such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan: Tyson reminds us that our bodies are quite literally made of the chemically rich guts of stars that exploded eons ago, that we are fundamentally tied to one another and the cosmos at large through what he calls the “chemistry of life.” Carl Sagan imagines that our bodies, the star-stuff of which we are made, act as a way for the universe to know itself; in much the same way, my own imagination points me toward a loving Creator who breathes us and all cosmic matter into being, a Creator that comes to know itself as the source of all love by seeing us enact and embody that love.
With the knowledge that we are all made of star-stuff, Tyson feels compelled to shake people as they walk down the street, shouting “did you know this, have you heard that the very atoms that compose each of us erupted from stars, that the universe is not only around us but within us!?” In much the same way that Tyson’s light-bulb moment draws him closer to the stranger on the street, this knowledge of our cosmic interdependence sends me spiraling ever closer to God, the great mystery, God who is the endless potential that creates us and stirs within us and all matter, God who is the very impulse to reach out and communicate with the stranger walking down the street. God who is often the question and not the answer, God who, like poetry and physics, is possibility and not certainty. God whose limitless love surrounds us not only in times of expansion and new life but also as stars burn out, as we experience death in the cosmos and in our communities, not as a metaphor but as a daily reality.
A star burns out when, under immense pressure, it collapses under the weight of its own gravitation. Such stars are optically invisible; I think of a generation of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, who have died of AIDS, who we know but cannot see, and young people of color who still contract the virus at alarming rates today. I think of transgender women who have been murdered on our streets, Lorena Escalera, Islan Nettles, Eryicka Morgan, in a world not yet ready to celebrate their brilliance. I think of young people full of questions, of expansive energy, of endless potential, and a justice system that attempts to dim and diminish, young people who die through acts of violence that are ignored if not sanctioned by the state. A world where a nineteen-year old boy like Jorge Fuentes can catch a stray bullet to the head while walking his dog in Dorchester, while some thousands of miles away, in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, a factory town on the border of Arizona, sixteen year old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez is hit seven times by bullets fired by the U.S. Border Patrol, allegedly because he threw a rock at their watchtower. These young men are now optically invisible, though the candles that burn at vigils in Boston and are placed in a makeshift memorial on the section of border wall where José Antonio was murdered remind us of their brilliance.
Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust. As Episcopal theologian Sylvia Sweeney suggests, the rites that we participate in on Ash Wednesday “seek to speak to the potentiality and vulnerability of the human person and the human community as we stand on the knife edge of life and death, and seek to understand what, if anything, lies beyond.” Christ pulls toward a world that is fundamentally different than the one we know, one wherein no one collapses under the immense pressure that injustice exerts, wherein no one must struggle to survive against the gravitation of their own dreams, their own expansive energy.
As we move into the Season of Lent, with its taking on and taking away, Jesus warns us not to practice our piety in order to gain attention or acknowledgement from others; is it not the case that so often, our cries for justice are inexplicably bound with our own sense of moral aptitude, that we wade in the waters of self-righteousness rather than prophecy? Jesus advises us, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” – it seems we get so lost in resisting the reality as it is that we forget to imagine the reality as it could be. Our very bodies are made of star-stuff, and through these bodies we can imagine and know the universe that is within us and around us, just as we can imagine and know a world that is safe for Jorge Fuentes, safe for Eryicka Morgan, safe for the victims of violence whose names we do not know and cannot speak today.
We are stardust, we are dust. We are as noble as that bright star that burned in the East, leading the three Wise Men through the dark night with nothing but hope that a new world was possible; we are as fragile and transient as dust, when the wind blows over us we are gone. It seems that just as Jesus invites us to create a world that is different than the one we know, he also points us toward our own incapacity to fix, to solve, to repair. Reminded of our own limitations, it seems that sometimes the most radical political act is to be gentle to ourselves, to be kind to the mistakes we make as we try and fail and try to make a world that is safe for us all.
The imposition of the ashes invites us to both remember our finite nature, but also to honor and imagine the sacred reality within us, around us, and beyond us. We are dust, we are stardust. The very smallest particles within us, the quirks and quarks that make each of us the strange and wonderful divine creatures we are, are the same that stretch and unfold and expand and contract throughout the mysterious cosmos that God imagines and adores.
Please pray with me:
Remind us that you have made our bones with the stuff of stars, so that we may use them to restore the streets we live in, to make those streets safe for Jorge, safe for Islan, safe for those whose bodies bear the brokenness of our healthcare system, safe for young people, and all people,
Call to out to us with your poetic language, open our eyes to the mysteriousness of your creation, as death surrounds us, widen our hearts so that we may heal and be healed, but also that we may be gentle to our own limitations,
As we transition into the season of Lent, that knife edge season, inspire us to imagine other possible worlds, in which we all can live and thrive.
 Sylvia Sweeney, An Ecofeminist Perspective on Ash Wednesday and Lent, p. 8.