I’m a 38-year old pastor, and I attended my first Ash Wednesday service a few hours ago.
I did not become a Christian (or a pastor) within the last 364 days. I’ve simply spent my entire lifetime of Christianing in tribes whose liturgy has not made space for this ritual. I was well into adulthood before I realized it wasn’t an exclusively Catholic practice, and while I was not raised to be particularly suspicious of Catholicism (I recall my dad taking grief from a few deacons and other grumblers in our small town West Texas baptist church when he and a few other pastors included the local Catholic priest in the community-wide Easter sunrise service), I admit that I made no real connections between my own faith and the sight of ashes on the foreheads of my Catholic friends. I suppose I just thought it was something weird they did at their church; God knows (and so did I, even as a kid) we did lots of weird things at our church.
[Topic-relevant case-in-point: One year my brother, Will, and I split the role of Jesus in the church Easter cantata — me the mostly-naked (in front of all of my classmates), dying and then dead Jesus with a bad wig and fake beard on the cross, and Will the resurrected, glittered (yes!) Jesus with a bad wig and fake beard. See, weird. And let’s be honest: I could have stopped at the word cantata and we would’ve had all the weird we need.]
In more recent years, I’ve lived among and helped lead a community of Jesus-types that resides somewhere in the sparsely populated terrain between the evangelical mainstream, the institution-defecting home churchers, and various spiritual traditions steeped in more ancient Church liturgy (and between lots of other things, too). Though we continue to recover some of the beautiful rhythms of communal worship and formation that we lost along the way (most of them well preserved by that latter group), including the observance of Advent and Lent, we are still finding our way through our inexperience and ignorance and simple discomfort, discerning what is and what is not meant for us, for now. And, at least for now, we haven’t started burning palm branches and rubbing the ashes on one another’s heads.
So I don’t know which you’ll find stranger – that I have spent nearly forty years in the Church and never have experienced this sacred start to the forty days of immersion in the suffering and death of Jesus or that as the pastor of a 15-year old church that doesn’t really observe Ash Wednesday, I wandered into a 100-year old building housing a 150-year old Episcopal congregation and had a priest I’ve never met cross my forehead with ashes.
I find both a little strange, so take your pick.
But today I needed to hear someone say to me: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It occurs to me that perhaps you’ll find that the strangest confession of all.
I needed that for a thousand jumbled reasons, but mostly I needed it because it is true.
I have spent days—no, weeks…months immersed in the truth that I have very little to do with my existing; my being what I am, being anything at all, is completely beyond my control. Sure, I can poke and prod at the life I’ve been given and change its shape and its trajectory a bit. But my simply being is not up to me. I didn’t bring me about, and I cannot fend off my ceasing to be as I am. I am living, yes, and in some sense living as I choose to live, but just as surely I am dying.
Today I needed my body and soul to enter the ritual of that truth: the words, the smear of ashes, the cross, the bread, the wine. I needed the sound of death. I needed its feel, its shape, and its taste. I needed it not because I want it, but because it is true, and a life detached from the truth is over long before any physical death.
I am dying — and I am dying a thousand little deaths on my way to the one that ultimately will return me to dust.
“This,” you say, “is why we don’t do Ash Wednesday. We’ve been saved from all this darkness and death.”
Except we haven’t just been saved from it. We’ve been saved by it. We’ve been saved through it. Our hope is not that God will keep us from death, but that Jesus, acquainted with the way, will walk with us in our dying. That he will not just show up at the end and declare us exempt, but that he will carry us through death. That he will not simply give us a fantasy of never dying, but that he will give us the imagination to see the life we gain in our death — and in our many deaths along the way. That he will remind us that we are alive because he raised us from dust, and that we can only be fully alive if we trust him to raise us from dust again.
So I died a little more today, starting with my illusion, long fed by busyness and distraction and fear and denial, that I am more than dust – that I am not dying. What remains in the ashes of that death is the truth spoken by the God who crafts life from dust by way of death, the God who invites us to find life by losing it:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.