Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days. I welcome Ash Wednesday every year because it feels like a deep breath of solemn honesty. This life, this one wild and precious life that I love so much, will not always be. There will be a time when I will return to the dust from which I was created. There will be a time when I am no more. That is simultaneously incredibly liberating and terrifying.
Ash Wednesday is a chance for us to sit with death for a moment. I think it’s hard for us to sit with death. Many are actively in pursuit of youth. I know I am. I bought my first anti-wrinkle cream this year. More like I bought a giant grocery bag full of anti-aging everything which I think qualified as buying a small stock into this well known skincare store. Why? I noticed a very, very faint line on my forehead. This line (which I’m pretty sure you need a magnifying glass for) triggered me into a love/hate relationship with aging. Which activated this existential angst that death will come knocking on my door (prayerfully much, much, much later than sooner). Ash Wednesday gives me a chance to take a deep breath and contemplate my relationship to God in life…and death.
Ash Wednesday is a day steeped in rituals. I love rituals. I find that sometimes it is the ritual itself that is holding my faith when my intellectual questioning can’t quiet down. On Ash Wednesday I trust the rituals of ash on my forehand. On Ash Wednesday I come to the Lord’s Table and find my seat in the mystery of God’s grace. On Ash Wednesday I confess my sins and trust that God’s mercy is greater than God’s judgement. On Ash Wednesday I minister and lead my congregation into the mysteries of this season as we participate in the rituals together. Faith is somehow found in the space between us.
Ash Wednesday also marks the possibility that God can do much good with dust and ash. Jan Richardson has a hopeful poem that I encourage you to read called Blessing the Dust. In it, Richardson blesses the dust as a sign of what God can do with the dirt and dust of this world. For all of us who are feeling a little dusty and wondering if God still needs us and wants to work through us, I commend her poem to you as a word of God’s hope in your life.
A couple years ago The Museum of Art and Design here in NYC had an exhibit called “Swept Away: Dust Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design.” Here’s what one of the little plaques said about ash:
Dust, ashes and smoke, dirt – these humble materials lead double lives. They comprise the anonymous detritus of our lives, the stuff we leave behind, the stuff we try to ignore, the stuff we deem unclean and therefore strive to remove or discard, to disguise or hide. They are the remnants of what once was, whispering reminders of the fleeting nature of existence. Dust, ashes, dirt, and smoke are uninvited witnesses to both the dissolution of the tangible and the resurrection of our histories.
I like this. In fact, I like this so much that we have used this as part of our liturgy at West End Collegiate Church on Ash Wednesday.
By the time you read this I will have most likely entered this Ash Wednesday the same way I have for the past 7 years. I wake up and say to God, “Here we go. Another Lent. Help me be honest and trust your mercy. Through what is known and what is unknown please do not be far away from me. Lead my hands and words to do Your will. Amen.” After my prayer I then listen to Dust in the Wind by Kansas which commences the solemnity of the day. I head to the church I serve and will offer the Imposition of Ashes to busy New Yorkers at 7:30 AM before their morning commute.
There is a freedom in this day. There is a freedom that the dust brings. The mysteries of life and death, the mysteries of confession and forgiveness, the mysteries of holding onto resurrection hope are found in this day.
A very blessed Lenten season to each of you.