Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
From yesterday’s Ash Wednesday sermon
Yesterday was Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, the last day of the Mardi Gras Carnival. Mardi Gras is several days, even weeks, of increasingly wild partying and celebrating in that city known for its wild partying. The hooting and hollering, the overindulging, the parades, and the dancing, go on around the clock, until the stroke of midnight at the end of Fat Tuesday. Then, the parades end, many of the bars close, and police on horseback clear the historic Bourbon Street. Why? Because then it is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
According to ancient Christian tradition, Lent is a holy time in which Christians do not party wildly, but they do repent and draw closer unto God. And, according to New Orleans tradition, you should go crazy with wild behavior all you can in the days preceding Lent, because that will have to hold you over for the next 6-1/2 long weeks, as you spend that time in faithful fasting and repentance.
I don’t know how much true Christian faith and feelings have to do with any of that anymore—if it ever did. And I doubt if all of the Fat Tuesday revelers really take a break from partying in order to observe their religious duties the next 6-1/2 weeks. But that is the historic background of that New Orleans tradition.
New Orleans is known not only for Mardi Gras, but the city is also famous for being considered the birth-place of Jazz, that wonderful and uniquely American contribution to the world of music. Several years ago Ken Burns, that master of American history documentaries, did a mini-series on the history of jazz. As I watched it, I was struck by how that lively, joyful, exuberant, and really fun music, sprung up out of such a sad and depressing setting, among such an oppressed people. Jazz began around the end of the 1800’s in the Deep South, among black Americans, some of whom were born slaves, all of whom were still second class citizens. Yet, the many different cultural influences in New Orleans combined to give rise to Jazz, this new music that would in time lead to Swing, and the Blues, and go on to influence country, and rock, and the whole American and world music scene. The music played in that mini-series is just terrific; so creative and alive. And the dancing was incredible, and the lives of the musicians were so interesting. They had so much fun creating and developing and experimenting with this new music. There was the joy of creating something so new and different, the pride and pleasure of performance, and the pure enjoyment of singing and dancing and being a part of it all. The whole mini-series is filled with joy and life.
Then, plopped right in the middle of the series, is an unexpectedly jarring moment—one of the most profound and thought-provoking segments of the entire mini-series. Being discussed was one of Duke Ellington’s early hits, a song called “Black and Tan.” “Black and Tan” is a tune that is slow and a bit somber sometimes, but also at times light and breezy, like the blues can be. But then right at the end Duke Ellington does something really weird. The song ends with a few bars of Frederic Chopin’s classic Funeral March…
The band would play that mournful tune right in the middle of a dance or a show that everyone was enjoying, right at the end of an otherwise pleasant little song. Why?
Duke Ellington wrote that song in 1929, and he said: “I just threw that in there to remind everyone that the good times do come to an end.” And that was an especially provocative and piercing insight to hear now, in that program, decades after all those good times have indeed ended for everyone that I had been watching. All of those great musicians have passed on, all of those singers and energetic dancers so full of life and energy then, are now dead, and all of those famous old dancehalls of the 1930’s and 40’s are closed.
All of that energy, all of that fun, all of those people– just gone. And Duke Ellington is gone, too. And the last notes of Ellington’s song— first performed in the midst of those fun days– reminded everyone that it wouldn’t last. And it didn’t.
Ash Wednesday is the day in the church year that brings that same reminder. ASH Wednesday it is called, as in ‘ashes to ashes and dust to dust,’ those words always said at the cemetery during the burial service. We begin the Season of Lent with a reminder of how we are all going to end up, just like Duke Ellington ended the song “Black and Tan” with such a reminder.
In the words of an older funeral liturgy—“In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek comfort, but of thee, O Lord?” It was in the midst of oppression and despair that the joyful, lively sound of jazz was born. And then, in the midst of the joyful heyday of jazz, Duke Ellington threw in that reminder that in the midst of life, death is still all around us, still threatens, is still on its way. In the words of the 23rd Psalm, we are always in the valley of the shadow of death.
There are seven billion human beings alive on planet earth right now, and every one of them is an incredible, wonderful, miracle of life; a special creation of God, so complex in mind and body that we cannot even begin to understand ourselves. We carry within our minds millions of memories and impressions of events and people and feelings—all of which have made us what we are. We each have our own unique personalities, our own store of wisdom and foolishness, of strengths and weaknesses, of good deeds and hidden sins. And we each have a unique and special relationship with God; he hears us when we speak, he knows our name and understands us, he holds us in the palm of his hand, and he does not want to lose us by our leaving him. Each of us, in body, mind, and spirit, is a miracle that not even all the scientists put together have begun to figure out. They are still just scratching the surface.
And yet, all of who you are and what you are depends on your body, what Shakespeare once called this “frail, frail flesh.” And every single body lasts only so long, and then it dies, and that’s it—ashes to ashes. That is the message of Ash Wednesday.
You all just came forward for the Imposition of Ashes. Those ashes are a symbol of death. What this ritual is doing is literally rubbing into your face the disturbing fact that you will die. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
The last measures of Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan” reminded the fun-loving dancers and all night partiers that they were on their way to something else—they were on their way to death. Ash Wednesday brings that same reminder, but Ash Wednesday is not the end of Lent. It is the beginning of Lent, and Lent also is on its way to something else. Lent is on its way to Easter. Lent begins where Duke Ellington ended—with death. Without Jesus, and without Easter, the funeral march is the end of the story. But with Jesus, death is just one step along the way to a new beginning.
So you get ashes on your forehead as a reminder of death, but the ashes are placed there in the shape of a cross. And that is a symbol of the fact that by his death on the cross, Jesus conquered death.
On Ash Wednesday we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” On Easter we hear the words, “He is Risen, He is risen indeed.”
Genesis 2:7 — Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Genesis 3:19 — (The Lord said to Adam), “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Daniel 12:2 — Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
John 11:25 — Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals…” Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.