Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ashes and Eggs

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Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ashes and Eggs

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Many of the stories and poems
that we associate with childhood
contain great wisdom.
Such is the case with these lines:

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again.”  1

The illustration that one book gives
for this nursery rhyme
features a very large and well-dressed egg,
complete with a red bow tie,
looking quite startled
as he begins his fall
toward irreversible ruin.


What makes “Humpty Dumpty”
a memorable nursery rhyme
is that it tells us something
about ourselves.
Each of us is Humpty Dumpty.
Each of us is a cracked, broken egg
that no power on earth can repair.

This nursery rhyme denies
the persistent human fantasy
that if I just had more power,
I could heal myself.
Nations believe this fantasy.
They think that with enough power,
they could make things whole.
People believe this fantasy.
We believe that with enough power,
we could make our lives perfect.
But “Humpty Dumpty” tells us
that more power
is not the solution to our problem.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
cannot fix
even one poor, broken egg.

We continually struggle against this realization,
but in our heart of hearts we know better.
That is why we laugh at The New Yorker cartoon
that shows a man loudly proclaiming
put Humpty Dumpty back together again
if only we will provide MORE horses
and MORE King’s men.
We realize that this assertion is untrue,
and so we laugh at it.


The point made by this nursery rhyme
is also made in today’s liturgy.
The ashes that we will soon receive
represent our mortality and penitence.
In other words,
they remind us that we are broken people.
The words said at their administration
emphasize this:
“Remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
Dust cannot change itself.
Today’s collect does not overstate the matter
by speaking of our “wretchedness.”
What better word to describe Humpty Dumpty
after his fall?

The reason we must reflect on this wretchedness
is that we so easily deny it.
We are Humpty Dumptys
who ardently believe
that we can glue ourselves back together again,
or that we never shattered in the first place.
But one moment of honest introspection
reveals our brokenness.
And nothing we control,
nothing we acquire on our own,
not even all the kingdoms of the world and their glory,
have the power to bind us up again,
to heal this aching brokenness.
Unless someone intervenes,
the story ends here, on Ash Wednesday.
Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.


Yet we are not content
to remain dust.
Something precious continues alive inside us.
We long to be whole.
We want to set aside our power fantasies
and replace them with the reality of love.
Lent is a time to act on this desire.

And so throughout the forty days ahead,
we may engage in prayer
that leaves us open
to know God’s strong love for us,
that love which refuses to let us go.

Throughout these forty days,
we may give alms to address human need,
not bestowing from a place of privilege,
but showing love toward people
who, like us, cannot live without love.

And throughout this holy season,
we may fast, emptying places in our lives
so that grace may prevail
and God find a home,
even in us.

What is the most important thing
that we can give up for Lent?
The belief that we can and should
become whole on our own,
all by our little selves.

When this death to pride occurs,
we will find
that we have become
a very different sort of egg.
An Easter egg.

  1.  The Real Mother Goose (Rand McNally & Co., 1944), 40.

Copyright 2015, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.