As I was preparing for Ash Wednesday this year, I took the opportunity to reflect on my past observances of the day. That’s one of the wonderful things about the discipline of a blog. It’s something of a diary in which I reflect publicly on the liturgy, lectionary texts, and other matters, as well as posting all of my sermons. So I went back through the past few years since I’ve been at Grace, and even further. As I read, I remembered, not just the more recent Ash Wednesdays but all the way back to the very first service at which I presided as a lay person because the Rector of the parish had taken a new call and the Interim Rector was not yet in place.
Some of those years were memorable because of what was happening in the world around us. In 2003, it was the imminent invasion of Iraq. In 2011, as we knelt to say the litany of penitence during the 6:00 service, the square outside erupted in noise in response to the State Senate’s final passage of Governor Walker’s budget repair bill.
It may be quiet on the square today but still our hearts may be unquiet because of other concerns: the tense situation in the Ukraine, human suffering in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere; and here at home deep, apparently insurmountable political conflict and worsening inequality. We also bring our own more intimate concerns: job loss, illness, loved ones, broken relationships, our doubts and fears. We’re distracted, too, by the fact that we’ve come here from work or school, from a day of errands. And some of us will go from here back to what we were doing, a desk full of work, or homework, or the myriad little details of daily.
In the midst of all of that busy-ness today, we’ve decided to pause for a few minutes, to hear and recite familiar, ancient words, to receive the sign of the cross marked with ash on our forehead, and to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
That’s really what Lent is. Just as this service today marks an interruption in our daily routine, so too does Lent interrupt our daily lives and offers us an opportunity to take stock of ourselves, to remind us of who we are, and most importantly, to remind us of who God is.
Ash Wednesday lays us bare. The shock of a smudge of ash on our forehead and the ominous words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” cuts through all of our self-defenses, all of the images of ourselves that we project to the world and to ourselves, bringing us back to the fundamental reality, we are dust and ash.
It’s easy for us to focus on ourselves on Ash Wednesday—ashes, the litany of penitence, the prayers—all of it seems like an invitation to wallow in our sinfulness. Of course, it’s important to take a steely eyed, unemotional look at ourselves; but that’s not the end of the story. The liturgy, the prayers, the readings also remind us of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and God’s love.
But at the same time, for all that, Ash Wednesday reminds us of who God is and who we are in light of God. The collect of the day begins, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” We are God’s beloved children, God’s creatures, even if we’ve been created from the dust of the earth.
The Psalm we just recited emphasizes God’s mercy:
For as the heavens are high above the earth, * so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west, * so far has he removed our sins from us.
As a father cares for his children, * so does the LORD care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made; * he remembers that we are but dust.
Just as we are told to remember that we are but dust, so the Psalmist says, God remembers that we are but dust. In our case, the reminder is so that we remember our mortality; that God remembers we are but dust is a sign of God’s care and mercy for us—extended to us because of our nature, our humanity, and our frailty, precisely because we are dust.
Therein lies the power of this day; the power of this smudge of ash on our foreheads. I know that many of us are uncomfortable with going through the rest of the day with ashes on our foreheads. We are uncomfortable with it because we hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” He seems to be telling us not to make a display of our religious practice and faith. But I would point out first that his warning is not about practicing one’s faith but about doing it in order to be seen by others.
So, if you decide to wipe the ashes off your forehead as you leave the church, that’s OK; there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you decide to go through the rest of the day with those ashes on your forehead, that’s OK, too. You’ll likely forget about them until you get a quizzical look from the cashier while you’re standing in line at the grocery store, or a helpful colleague at work will tell you that you have something on your forehead. Ashes can be a witness, a sign of God’s grace.
For it’s not just a smudge on your forehead. It’s the sign of the cross, marked on your forehead just as when we baptize babies, trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the oil of chrism, and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever. We bear the sign of God’s powerful love carrying it into the world, offering it to everyone we meet.
The ashen cross is not just a sign of our mortality and need for penitence. It is also a sign of God’s grace and love, a sign of God’s forgiveness. To mark our foreheads with ashes is to remind ourselves and the world of God’s redemptive and gracious love, to remind us that God brings life out death, that God brings life out of dust. God remembers that we are dust and God’s mercy extends even to us.
Thanks be to God!