“you are of dust and to dust you shall return”
Next Wednesday, February 22, you may see a lot of people walking around with dirt on their foreheads. We like to call the dirt “ashes” I think because it sounds nicer.
The truth is there is nothing particularly pleasant or nice about Ash Wednesday. On this day Christians all over the world begin the holy season of Lent by remembering their own mortality - remembering that we are made up of dust (atoms and molecules and DNA, etc) and it is dust that we will return to (decomposing and providing atoms and molecules for something new).
It is not fun to think about our own death, our own limitations and weaknesses and yet that is exactly what we do on Ash Wednesday. Some may call it morbid. I call it holy. Ash Wednesday is a day when we refuse to hide from our frailty, our brokenness, and our neediness.
It is our neediness that points us to the Holy One because God does not turn away from your neediness and longing and God does not walk away in disgust or frustration when ugliness rises up inside you and you live life in stubborn sinfulness. God never gives up, but reaches out to pick you up from the miry muck and set you on firm ground (Psalm 40). Often it is in our weakness, when we break down and are no longer able to stand on our own that we recognize that God has been holding us up all along. It is in our weakness and need that we recognize the strength and grace of God through Jesus. The song Hymn by Jars of Clay beautifully expresses this truth in the lyrics:
Oh gaze of love so melt my pride
That I may in Your house but kneel
And in my brokenness to cry
Spring worship unto Thee
We mix up ashes and olive oil, we have a time for confession (admitting that our life is unmanageable and that we need God’s help and intervention) and then we go up to the altar and have this mixture of oil and ash spread on our foreheads while the pastor says “remember that you are of dust and to dust you shall return.” All the while, underneath all this worship and ritual, is the promise that God is able to bring life out of the ashes of death. Ash Wednesday abruptly turns our attention to the cross where Jesus takes on all the ashes of death and sin and shadow by dying and on Easter is raised up destroying the power of death and bringing LIFE.
We remember our death and mortality always in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection - in light of the Cross and of Easter. We remember the ashes because we know that through Jesus God bring life and hope and healing out of the ashes of death!
I hope that you take time to check out an Ash Wednesday worship service at a congregation near you - everyone is welcomed and you don’t need to be Christian or to understand all that is happening to participate (we only do this once a year, so almost everyone has to remember or be reminded of what is happening). It is a chance to see the heart of the Christian faith - a faith that God brings peace, wholeness, life and forgiveness in the places of violence, shadow, death and hate in our world, communities and our own lives through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.