Out of the Ashes
"Hey, you've got something on your forehead. Let me get that for you." Trying to be helpful, I made this remark to a Catholic friend in my pre-Christian days. I saw the sooty blotch and assumed it was an accident, a cosmetic oversight. My friend informed me it was the sign of the cross, made by a priest on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Thus began my education on this ancient Christian holiday.
In the 25 years since, Ash Wednesday has become my second favorite Christian holiday (for those so inclined, you may guess my favorite day in the Christian year. Surprise: it's not Easter!). Ash Wednesday doesn't get much press in Protestantism, even among Presbyterians. It's a quiet, but profound, start to Lent, that 40 day period for contrition, contemplation, humility, and spiritual aspiration. Lent, and its kickoff, Ash Wednesday, invite us to recognize and learn from our deep brokenness before God.
Ash Wednesday commemorates the biblical reality that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). Dirt is our inevitable destiny (whether through cremation or decomposition), unless...unless, something or Someone intervenes. Made for eternal relationship with the living God, we rebelled and abused our freedom, choosing to worship self rather than God. Rudely self-plucked from the rich soil of God's life, we fade and wither, we dry up and die. Without a dramatic rescue, a turnabout, some surprise change in spiritual reality, this is our destiny: dust, ash, death. Unless...
Ash Wednesday uses the burnt palm fronds of the past year's Palm Sunday to mark us with the cross--a mark of tragedy and triumph. The cross signifies that there is indeed an "unless"--God has intervened to rescue us from the cycle of death and decomposition. As we pastors mark worshipers, we say, "You are dust and to dust you shall return...but thanks be to God for the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
I am moved each year at the end of the service as I look out upon the congregation, all marked with ash in the sign of the cross. We share a solidarity in frailty. The ground is level: we stand shoulder to shoulder, needy and dependent, and yet affirming our common hope that Christ will bring life out of death and that dust need not be our destiny. Made for life, to life we go!