Ash Wednesday is an ancient holy day in the Christian church calendar. It marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which is traditionally a time of spiritual attentiveness and renewal. We are reminded of our mortality as we confess our brokenness and receive God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.
At my church, we gather in the evening for a service that includes the imposition of ashes in which we turn toward God in order to receive from God a clean heart and a new spirit. The ashes are made from the leaves from Palm Sunday the year before. They are black and grainy, and with my thumb I mark each person’s forehead with a cross as I utter the words, “From dust you came, to dust you shall return”. They are a reminder of our limited humanity. God is infinite and powerful but we were born, and we will die.
When my children were very young, I would go to these evening services alone. This year, however, my children were old enough to attend with me. For the first time, my family was present at the Ash Wednesday service. I always love it when we can be together at church.
The service proceeded as planned, with quiet prayers and lovely music. I stood at the front of the church and invited everyone to come up the center aisle one at a time to receive the sign of the cross.
One by one they came to face me, stepping toward me so that my thumb could touch their forehead. I looked each person in the eye, considering our human frailty, repeating the words over and over: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And then I was suddenly face to face with my child. In front of me, eyes looking up expectantly, was my own flesh and blood. I carried him in my belly for nine months, listened as he took his first breath, marveled at his infant beauty. I held his hand as he learned to walk, rocked him when he cried, watched him delight in puppies and Lego and birthday cake. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Facing him, I couldn’t breathe. It was agony to reach for that small forehead and mark it with a reminder of death. How could I stand there and acknowledge that the death of my own child will one day come? That my sweet little boy could at any moment–will at some moment–cease to be? Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I swallowed tears. I made that mark with my thumb. This is the way it is in God’s world. Agony. Death. The promise of Comfort. Lord, have mercy.
The line pressed ahead after that. I was shaken but carried on, marking each of us with ashes that seemed blacker than before, earthier somehow. There we were at the crux of it all, accepting the realities of life, the pain and suffering and disappointment. There we were acknowledging how powerless we are to change it.
Still we were together, and straining our eyes for the first signs of hope. Surely Easter is coming soon.