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Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Written By Guest Author

Dip, downstroke, cross.

“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Dip, downstroke cross.

“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

A murmured thank you.

Dip, downstroke, cross.

“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Crouch down, dip, downstroke, cross.

“From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Every year, the Ash Wednesday service is one of my favorite Christ Community services. In the words of our campus pastor, “It’s sadder here,” and he’s right, it is. Beautifully sad. Ever humbling. Sorrow-stirring. 

This year I felt it in my hands first. We had been given gold-painted rings with tags attached and were asked to reflect and write down “treasures we cherish more than Jesus.” Oof. The mental inventory took less time than I’d have liked, and returned more than I hoped for. Confessions of misordered loves and misplaced affections, time misspent, and hopes misplaced swam forward and weighed heavily on my mind.

Moments before, the congregation proclaimed “He is worthy…of all blessing and honor and glory.” We had declared Jesus “holy, holy, holy,” and yet I had a lap full of contrary confessions. Sitting confronted with the hypocrisy alive in my own heart, the weight of the ring in my hands grew. It felt an awful lot like 30 pieces of silver.

I felt it on my shoulders next. Asked to stand, each side of the room was then asked a simple question. Using the same words asked of  Peter the disciple, echoing from thousands of years ago, a voice prompted “Church . . . Children of God . . . Sons and Daughters . . . Do you love me?” As we were addressed, each group in turn clutched our frail golden prize, holding our confessions close, and silently turned our backs. 

Away from the voice.
Away from the cross.
Away from the call of Jesus.

I think this is the most visceral way I’ve wrestled with my fallen nature in a while – which says more to my acceptance of it than anything. Facing my chair, grasping a representation of goods made into gods, the truth hung heavy; while I wish it wasn’t, rejection was the truest expression of my heart. 

What can you do with this weight other than let it consume you? Repent.  Looking guiltily at our hands and the sanctuary walls, we begged, “Come thou font of every blessing,” we offered, “Here’s my heart Lord, take and seal it.” Grace met our cries, and the weight lifted as mercy made tangible invited us to once again turn and face the symbol of our salvation, the cross. 

While normally this portion of the service would bear enough emotional weight to make me pause and ponder, this year I had also been asked to help impart ashes. I knew when I was asked that I was honored, but after touching the foreheads of a quarter of my church family, I can honestly say I had no idea how honored I should be. 

It felt holy. Standing in the corner of the room, thumb gritty and oily with the ashes, offering fellow congregants a soft smile, a black cross on the forehead, and some of the least comforting words I can think of, “From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” 

It felt brutal to say those words over my older brothers and sisters in Christ, and there were more than a few of them. I crouched down to one woman’s forehead. Moved wispy silver bangs off another’s. My thumb brushed the wrinkles of a grandfather’s forehead. Crosses made of ash drawn where hairlines used to be. 

It felt brutal to say those words over younger brothers and sisters in Christ. I help with student ministries, so I saw students that I knew come through my line. I crouched down to a child’s forehead. Moved the brim of a baseball cap off another’s. My thumb brushed teenage acne scars. Crosses made of ash poked from beneath well-styled floppy hair.

This practice stirred remnants of the invincibility of youth that I didn’t realize still dwelt deep within me. While I wasn’t surprised that the sentiment felt true to say over those who’ve walked this globe longer than I, it was a sinking shock to realize it rang as true for those who have walked less. 

I know mortality is one of the great equalizers. Counter to the side of the human coin imprinted imago Dei lies our finitude. I just haven’t been confronted by it in a while. My life is largely insulated from reminders of it nowadays; my family is currently healthy, and my Facebook feed misleadingly free of CaringBridge pages. But Ash Wednesday wrestles the rose-colored glasses from my face. It demands me to see clearly. To see clearly the presence and cost of sin in my heart. In my life. In the lives of my fellow congregants. In the church. In the world. To see the death bought by our behavior.

That’s Ash Wednesday’s gift. For only from the right, corrected sight can the growth God invites us to come. Only from the admittance of brokenness can come repair. Only from confession can come forgiveness free from shame. Jesus promised the kingdom of God to the mourners, the meek, and the poor in spirit. Ash Wednesday is a means to get us there. A funeral to our pride, a shrinking of our egos, and a preaching of our fallibility over ourselves. Let it be the water that washes me meek and mourning, for the glory of God and the good of my soul.

Amen.

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1 Comment

  1. Marcia Yearout

    Reading this blog has taken me back to the Ash Wednesday service. Thank you.

    Reply

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