Service for Ash Wednesday (online here)
The very name for this day focuses on “the imposition of ashes”—the moment where the minister dips a thumb into the ashes and traces the sign of the cross on the worshipper’s forehead. It can be a memorable moment, or … not, depending on where you are in your life right now. Either way, it’s a powerful moment that doesn’t always depend on how much you pay attention.
The ashes connect us to our mortality, to our earthiness: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They connect us to the brokenness in our lives. This is a time to be fully honest with yourself and God about all the things you haven’t accomplished, all the things you probably won’t ever accomplish, all the pain you’ve caused, and all the pain you’ve suffered from others. It’s a time to stop pretending that we can keep any secrets from the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. That’s what the ashes do with us.
But we don’t smear these ashes all over ourselves. Someone uses them to trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads. There’s another time we do something like that. Right after you get baptized, the minister marks your forehead with the sign of the cross and says that “you are marked as Christ’s own forever.” The ashes connect us to our mortality, but the sign of the cross connects us to our risen life in Christ.
It works that way even if you never got around to being baptized. We believe that, most particularly in Jesus Christ, God has taken up all the dust of this world into the endless common life that God simply is. God looks on you and all creation as already baptized, marked as Christ’s own forever. So remember that, in one way or another, you’re not just dust—you’re baptized dust.
That’s why you can afford to be fully honest about where you are. When you know that the only barriers between you and God’s common life are the barriers you put up yourself, when you know that God’s love doesn’t have any barriers, you’re free to open yourself to God and even to the person next to you.
That happened for me once, and right in the middle of an Ash Wednesday service. I was brought up to be a tolerant and welcoming person. But in my early college years I got caught up in a very intolerant brand of Christian faith. There were powerful moments of grace back then, but they got mixed in with a need to put up barriers to shut out people who didn’t share our experience.
I actually got to a point where I wouldn’t take communion with other kinds of Christians, and most especially Episcopalians. I didn’t think they were properly baptized, and I especially resented the fact that one of my friends had joined up with them. But I couldn’t help loving the liturgy, and I would sometimes go to services with my friend Alan and even go up to the communion rail, where I’d fold my arms across my chest to indicate that I wouldn’t receive the bread or wine.
On Ash Wednesday of my junior year, I went with Alan to a morning service. I was in a grumpy mood that day and wasn’t sure why. I had been feeling a bit stifled lately, or blocked. I wasn’t finding much joy in things any more. And as the service unfolded that day I slowly began to realize that I was being a total jerk. I was the one stifling myself. Here was grace happening all around me, too obvious to deny, and I was letting theological hair-splitting keep me from celebrating it. So when I went up to the communion rail on that day, I extended my hands to receive the bread and wine. And from that point on lots of barriers started coming down.
Barriers are still coming down today. Learning to be fully honest, learning to live into God’s common life is a life-long process. I still need that connection in the form of ashes traced in the sign of a cross. We all need it. Remember that you are dust. Remember that you are baptized dust, marked as Christ’s own for ever. Thanks be to God.