The popular explanation today is that it was all about the Great Plague that struck England in 1665, but that’s probably just an urban myth, the kind we preachers often fall for when searching about for good sermon illustrations. After all, many a great message has depended upon the homilectical rubric that “if it isn’t true, it should be.”
The reality, however, is that the popular rhyme didn’t appear until 1881, along with many other children’s poems that have all been attributed to the legendary Mother Goose, who likewise probably never lived either, all the efforts of the good folks in Boston to convince tourists notwithstanding.
Still, it’s perhaps an appropriate rhyme for this, the beginning of Lent, for the end of that little refrain is simply “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” And that’s the point indeed of this day, I think. For the ashes on this Wednesday are a reminder not only of our own mortality, but of our fallen nature which is what necessitated the grand intervention God made in this world in the first place.
To be sure, we could simply walk around with a sandwich sign reading: “Caution: Mortal on Board,” or likewise hang a scarlet “S” around our necks to acknowledge that no matter how well we may clean up that we’re still sinners in need of God’s grace. But having ashes on our foreheads would seem to be easier way to say both of those things.
Similarly, if the season of Lent is solely about self-sacrifice–about not eating sweets or denying ourselves something which we really enjoy–then I have a feeling we’ve missed some of its deeper meaning. For ultimately what Lent points us to is the need for reconnecting with the One who so fearfully and wonderfully made us, even if some of us are indeed more fearful than wonderful.
If you’re feeling the need to “give up” something for the coming six weeks, thus, why not start with giving up your false understandings about just who you are and what you can do on your own. For doing such, in turn, will no doubt lead you to give in to a greater truth, which is that our lives are ever in the hands of Someone else.
Of course it may not hurt at all to take a break from chocolate or to use this time to try to wrestle back control over a harmful habit that may have come to control us. Foregoing food now and then may indeed be a good way to refocus our attention in life, especially if we replace an old pattern with a new spiritual discipline.
Just don’t let the shadow of the Cross blot out all of the light of God’s grace in the days ahead. For even in Lent, I have a feeling God still stands with an outstretched hand ready to pick us up and dust us off.
After all, no matter how hard we may work at it I have a feeling that we do indeed all fall down.