Yesterday, as I burned last year’s leftover palms from Palm Sunday and ground them into ashes, I reflected on the strangeness of my actions and the strangeness of Ash Wednesday. I thought about ashes.
There was a time in human history and culture when ashes were ubiquitous. Indeed, from the very beginning of human civilization, ashes have been present. Ever since humans discovered how to make fire, our lives, our homes, our culture, has been surrounded by ashes. There are many places in the world where that is still the case, but not in twenty-first century America. Ever since the arrival of electricity and central heating, ashes have increasingly vanished from our ordinary experience. Think about it. How often have you encountered, touched, ashes in the last year? If you have a woodburning fireplace or wood stove, if you use a charcoal grill, if you go camping and build a campfire, you have to deal with ashes. But otherwise, they simply don’t enter into our daily lives and consciousness.
How different that is from what lives must have been like 150 years ago, or still are, in less-developed countries. For nineteenth century American housewives, ashes were probably one of the great enemies, threatening chaos and dirt throughout the house and yard. London used to have the nickname “The Smoke” because of the blanket of soot and ash that covered the city. Ashes were everywhere.
As a priest, in addition to preparing ashes for Ash Wednesday and making the sign of the cross on your forehead in ash, there is one other way in which I encounter and experience ashes. That is when I place the ashes of a deceased person in an urn before placing it in our columbarium, or when I pour someone’s ashes directly into the ground. For me there is no more intimate, no more holy, no more priestly act than that. And it probably explains why I took the time last week to drive down to Chicago to inter the ashes of one of our members in a Chicago cemetery.
As we placed her urn in the ground, I said,
Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of manknd; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and unto earth shall we return. For so thou didst ordain when thou created me, saying, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
When I attend to the ashes of a dead person, I am caring for her as Christians have cared for the dead for two thousand years. I am ministering to the body of someone who lived, loved, had all of the emotions and experiences humans do, suffered and struggled, wept and rejoiced. I am preparing her body for the next stage of her journey, a stage that will end when she is raised from the dead, body and soul reunited, and she becomes a new creation, a new being fully alive in the presence of God.
I know, too, how powerful the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” I had a chance conversation with a parishioner yesterday who told me about the first Ash Wednesday service he attended, when he was in boot camp and the Catholic Chaplain, aided by an enlisted assistant, imposed ashes on the recruits. I remember as a layperson, hearing those words and receiving the ashes on my forehead. I remember the power of the words, as well as the awkwardness of that smudge of ash.
I know, too, how powerful and intimate it is to put my thumb on your foreheads, brushing aside your hair, and saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
I know the temptation to make Ash Wednesday all about us, about our humanity and mortality, about our sin. There is something powerfully individualistic about it all, something that turns us in on ourselves, to focus on our sin, our venality, our failures, our brokenness; to think about God’s judgment on us. There’s a temptation even to wallow in it, to beat our breasts.
What makes it worse is that our lessons, especially the reading from Isaiah and the gospel, call into question our motives and actions today. “Beware of practicing your piety before others, to be seen by them…” We’re told to fast and pray in private, not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, then we come forward, have ashes smeared on our foreheads and go from this place about our daily business. What’s more ostentatious, more obviously pious than to walk around all day with a smudge of ashes on our foreheads? Isn’t that sort of behavior just what Jesus seems to be criticizing here?
Some of us might want to wipe the ashes off of our foreheads as soon as we leave the church; some of us might struggle with our motives for receiving and wearing ashes. How you respond to these issues has a great deal to do with how this day and this rite have affected you in the past, how comfortable you are with odd stares from passers-by, and whether you imagine that wearing an ashen cross is more about you than it is about God.
For all the self-reflection and self-examination of this day and the season of Lent, for all the focus on our sins and shortcomings, however appropriate such things might be, appropriate, and necessary. Ash Wednesday and Lent are not just about us; they are also, and primarily, about God.
I don’t know if you noticed the verses in the psalm we just read that gets at this point and puts everything we do today in proper perspective:
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.
He himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers we are dust. What comforting, what gracious words! They take us back to the very act of creation. We are told in Genesis 2 that God fashioned us from the dust of the ground. God knows what we are and who we are. God knows us more intimately and more completely than we know ourselves. And what’s most remarkable, the fact that God knows this is evidence of God’s love and care for us. The ashes are a sign to us and to the world of God’s care and love for us and for all human beings.
For it’s not just a smudge of ash on our foreheads. I mark your foreheads with my thumb, using the very same gesture I use when I make the sign of the cross with oil during baptism. Then I say, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
You carry that sign of the cross on your forehead every day of your life, even if it is invisible. For one day a year, perhaps only for a few minutes, you have on your forehead a visible sign of the cross, marked in ash. It’s a reminder of our humanity and morality. It’s also a reminder of our origins, in God’s creative love. It’s a reminder to us, of God’s love for us and for the world and an opportunity to share the knowledge of that love with everyone we meet. Thanks be to God!