I did not grow up observing Ash Wednesday. It simply was not a part of the tradition in which I was raised. And when my colleague, Steve, and I first decided to hold an Ash Wednesday service nearly 20 years ago in a joint service of our two congregations, I was nervous. Would people think it was “too Catholic” for us Protestants? Would anyone even show up? And if they did show up, would anyone come forward to have ashes placed on their foreheads?
I have heard people say that they find no value in having ashes placed on their forehead, or in taking time to mark the beginning of the Lenten Season at all, for that matter. And that’s fine. People are where they are. However, what I’ve come to realize is that year after year, I cherish the reminder that I came from dust and that I shall return to dust, that my life is brief and my need for Christ is profound. My mortality and my need for a Savior go hand in hand. Likewise, I need to be reminded that the cross and the pathway to the cross cost God something, that this life in God that has been given freely to me was not cheap, and is not something to take for granted.
Others feel, theologically, that it is not helpful to “wallow” in the sorrow of Lent. They would rather celebrate the victory of the Resurrection than spend 40 days in the wilderness. And I get that. I would rather celebrate Easter Sunday as well. But it’s equally true that in the wilderness, I meet God — just as Moses did when he came upon the burning bush on the far side of the wilderness in Exodus 3. In the wilderness of Lent I am taken back to ground zero, to my sinfulness, my need, and my deep longing to experience all of God there is to experience in this life and the next. I am reminded that God loved me this much.
That Ash Wednesday evening in the suburbs of Cleveland nearly 20 years ago, people did show up. I don’t remember how many people were there, but it was more than a few. Steve and I walked through the service and the liturgy, one of us shared a brief homily on the meaning of such a day and the symbolism of ashes on the forehead, and then we invited the people to come forward. Steve and I stood at the front of the sanctuary in the center isle, and slowly but surely nearly ever person present came forward for the imposition of ashes. As each of them reached the head of the line, Steve or I would dip our fingers into the ashes, make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and say to them, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.”
At the end of the service, Steve and I walked to the back of the sanctuary where we prepared to greet the worshipers. Just as we arrived at the back doors I turned to Steve and said, “I don’t know if it’s appropriate to talk about Ash Wednesday like this or not, but that rocked!” There was a depth to our worship and those face-to-face moments that seemed rare, intimate, and holy. Standing face to face with each person, in those few brief seconds of holy vulnerability, remains one of the most powerful experiences in leading worship for me.
To this day, in those fleeting seconds of dust, ashes, and good news, I am always reminded of God’s immense love for each one, the privilege that is mine to pastor them, the call of God on me to love and serve them well, and the power for life and faith the marking of this season contains.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.”