Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.
This is the day that begins the Lenten Season in the life of the church. This is the start of our 40 days of somber reflection on our mortality, our need for repentance, our need for God’s grace. These are the dark days that pave the way for the light of Easter.
To be honest, I have always loved this season. I appreciate that it asks something more of me. In years past, I have given up a variety of things, such as soda, chocolate, and the all-time disciplinary challenge: restaurants. I take on the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer every day at noon. I have encouraged my children to begin practices like these. One year, Jackson gave up chicken. This was both admirable and kind of a pain for dinner preparation, since it constituted the majority of our protein options.
We do strange things in church. Tomorrow, we will gather at noon on Laguna Beach’s Main Beach to offer a bizarre thing to the public. We will say to strangers, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as we smear ashes mixed with oil tinged with the scent of frankincense upon their foreheads.
As a pastor, I have a number of stories that accompany me each time I come to this day in our calendar. I remember Bob, who died of pancreatic cancer 24 hours after I whispered, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” to him in his hospice bed. I remember how my voice caught in my throat when I smudged a tiny cross upon the head of my own child. But, I always think of Will, my Godson’s brother, who just a few days before Ash Wednesday had fallen in the kitchen and managed a spiral fracture his femur. He was two and a half years old at the time, and this freak accident yielded him immobilized in a hip-down Spica cast for 8 weeks.
This also yielded his mother, my dear friend, Cindy, immobilized. She was in the early stages of her pregnancy with my Godson, and was unable to leave the house since she couldn’t lift Will into his “sweet ride” (because why call it a wheelchair when you can give it *much* cooler name?) alone.
It was a terrible thing, but a temporary one. Will managed through the pain and I watched as beloved friends from our church came and built a ramp to help facilitate the sweet ride’s ability to roll in and out of the front door of their home. A schedule for dinners was created. People called and prayed and checked in frequently. But, as a pastor, there’s always a question of “what more can I do?”
It occurred to me, as we were cleaning up after the Ash Wednesday service, that Cindy and Will hadn’t been to church since the accident. No communion, no prayer, no community. No ashes.
As sobering as it was, I called to ask if Cindy would like me to bring ashes to their home and repeat the ritual there.
In the quiet of the evening, my friend opened the door. She led me to the couch where Will was resting. After a few minutes of conversation, I pulled out the small dish that contained the ashes and oil. Will was quiet as I whispered, “Remember, William, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Cindy and I made fruitless attempts to keep tears from running down our cheeks as I repeated these words to the mother of this beautiful and brave boy. There was no need to reinforce our mortality. It was so heavy before us. The fragility of life and the delicacy of our wholeness was not something that could be taken for granted in these days.
I will never forget that day, and how important the ashes seemed. We do this bizarre thing because this strange practice asks us to publicly display our faith in a God who promises that love will defeat even death itself.
Tomorrow, as we go through our day, we will look and see those with a smudgy cross staring back. It will be as if each person has been touched by the same black spirit, which causes us all to wear Death on our foreheads.
Mortality will became our prominent feature, our first attribute, our most notable aspect.
All else will fade away – our names, our clothes, our stature, our mood – all will be muted by the shout of Death that speaks louder than any of our attempts to feign life.
Ash Wednesday’s ritual is a sobering practice and this unusual marking sets us on a journey, which we know ends, not at the foot of the cross, but in the garden where we are met with life and resurrection. It’s good that we have this hope and promise of eternal life, because on Ash Wednesday, Death speaks louder than our mortal life, and it feels as though that spirit given us its final message:
Dust to dust.