Death Cab for Cutie is unlikely to headline a Christian rock festival this summer.
With hits like "I Will Follow You into the Dark" and "Soul Meets Body," the band is far more agnostic than religious, more existential than spiritual. In a 2011 interview with Relevant Magazine, band member Ben Gibbard described himself as a lapsed Catholic with intentions to rid himself of the "emotional shackles" of his religious upbringing.
And yet when I find myself listening to their latest hit, "Here to Forever," I can't help but thinking that this is a song that could just as easily air on mainstream radio as it could at an Ash Wednesday service.
The lyrics begins with a meditation on black and white movies from the 1950s:
In every movie I watch from the '50s There's only one thought that swirls Around my head now And that's that everyone there on the screen Yeah, everyone there on the screen Well, they're all dead now They're all dead now
And it ain't easy living above And I can't help but keep falling in love With bones and ashes With bones and ashes And when the color is too bold and bright I'm daydreaming in black and white Until it passes Until it passes
Bones and ashes are perhaps the central metaphors on Ash Wednesday. As we receive the imposition of ashes, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We begin our Lenten journey with this practice not to be depressing or existentialist, but to recall the fundamental fact of our existence: that we are mortal.
As I listen to this song, I'm drawn not just to the reminder that we are bones and ashes, but to the singer's description of falling in love with bones and ashes - because therein lies the hope of Ash Wednesday.
Not that we will die, but that we are beloved by God throughout it all. We are bones and ashes, but our bones and ashes are the creation of an eternal God. We are bones and ashes, temporary bodies made by an infinite creator whose work breaks into our lives in spite of our limitations.
It is only through awareness of our mortality that we can faithfully and sincerely return to the Lord - which is why we begin Lent with ashes. For why would one seek to shed the false self if the false self were eternal? Why would one seek to rediscover one's true identity as a beloved child of God if the identities assigned by our world were permanent and immutable?
While a student at UW-Madison, I had the great privilege of being mentored by Pastor Brent Christianson of the Lutheran Campus Center. Each year, Pastor Brent would recite this poem as his Ash Wednesday sermon. Pastor Brent passed away in 2020, but the impact he made on countless students remains. I doubt he ever listened to Death Cab for Cutie. But I'm sure he would have found companionship with the band if he ever had the opportunity to meet for scotch ales at Dotty Dumpling's. I've included an excerpt here from Pastor Brent's sermon, also available on YouTUbe for those who would rather listen.
Remember that you are dust. To dust you shall return. And as dust, you are beloved.
Stardust and Ashes
by Rev. Brent Christianson
We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. Our lives orbit and move, flow and fall, settle and send the life and the lives that we have and share and lose and choose or have chosen for us in the presence of particles small as non-being and large as the cosmos a cosmos for creatures of stardust and ashes.
We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. We are creatures whose lives flow from God’s hidden mind and the dust of the earth. We are creatures whose futures will be in God’s heart and the soil of the ground. We are creatures whose mouths sigh in ecstasy, cry in pain, whose minds create beauty and weapons, whose hearts beat in hatred and love whose lives move in awe and in boredom whose loves flow like water and lava whose work can bring wholeness and sin whose hopes can be noble and petty whose scope can be worldwide and bound to go no farther outward than the skin we inhabit. Creatures of Stardust and Ashes.
We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. And on some of our foreheads a mark that may be one or the other, or might just as likely be both. Our hearts are not home ‘till they find home in God and the stardust will shine like the sun. Our lives are not lives except they are lived on this earth where ashes and memories, dirt, dust and mud cake us or take us to where we must know that we have a home here – here as well – on this planet of ashes and stardust. Spinning through space in its own grace and grandeur, the earth touches stardust and ashes. Move a hair’s breadth away (as the universe measures itself), and this grand earth itself shrinks and hides in the cosmos of stardust and ashes. Ashes and stardust.
The sun itself, burning a bit cold in winter will heat up the dust of our sometimes brisk bodies and warm us, come spring. But it also will turn, burn to ashes ... and stardust for nothing but God is eternal.
We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. They cannot be separate, cannot be taken apart or away for they make us today and tomorrow and all yesterday’s who we were are and will be. The smudge on our foreheads is death- toll and promise. It tells us of all of the ashes in our lives, the times gone, the loves done the friends passed, the ancestors sleeping in dust. But the marks that we bear, bear a promise.
The promise is stardust that flows from the garden of God to be gathered at last and before then to be holy ground where the One who sees each one in secret, rewards – not from merit or pity or labor done well, but from that one’s deepest secreted heart. For the God whom we worship is stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. God is in every stardust and ash. God is around every stardust and ash. God is between every stardust and ash. God is found now – found now, in with and under the bread and the wine, the friend and the foe, the lover and enemy, water and word, in the one standing next to you; the one sitting, who is you and the God who is stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust has held you from long before you were conceived and will hold you again and forever a step past your own grave. God is here now – in God’s stardust and ashes. God is here now, in your stardust and ashes. God is our God and God chooses to be in the hidden place of our own secret ashes. God is our God and God chooses to be in our own secret place of our unnoticed, unseen unsuspected and hidden own stardust.
We are creatures of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. God is a God of stardust and ashes, ashes and stardust. The wind of the spirit stirs stardust and ashes and mixes them up and breathes life into dry lungs and sets us all here and gives us each other and bread, wine and water and makes of our stardust a bright shining sun; and makes of our ashes a rich, fruitful garden, and makes of our present, the dwelling of God, and makes of our futures, the place where God dwells.