|Ash from my fireplace|
Remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
I’ve loved Ash Wednesday services for as long I can remember. Sure, Christmas Eve and Easter celebrations can be great with the colorful decorations and grand music, but some years I’ve found them bittersweet—hard to keep up the pretense of joy when my soul is feeling something more complicated. Good Friday gatherings, in contrast, can also be powerful in their sadness, but their focus on the agony Jesus experienced and the cruelty of our world can sometimes be more than I can handle contemplating that day.
Ash Wednesday is something else, though. It allows us to show up however we happen to be at that moment. It is about reflecting on who we truly are and our place in the universe. It is, for me, an invitation to begin again on the Lenten journey—a time of intense introspection, repentance and mindfulness—the nearest thing Christians have to Ramadan. We begin by the reminder that we are made of dust,* and that to dust we will return.
There are a number of traditions on how best to get the ashes that are placed on our foreheads on this holy day. Many burn the leaves they had saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and by doing so highlight the fickleness of humans--we praise a person one day and tear him/her down the next. In the congregations I attended in my youth, my father preferred to distribute notecards for all gathered so that we could put on paper the regrets, grudges and fears that we needed freed from in order to draw nearer to God. Watching my card burn was so cathartic that I began ritually burning a notecard every year—even inviting friends to join me in the ceremony when there otherwise was none.
This year, however, I have a new relationship with ashes. I now have the image seared into my mind of the small transparent bag filled with pale dust which I numbly placed into a columbarium tube—my father’s physical remains compact enough to fit in a coffee can.
There are realities of life which we can know intellectually yet not truly grasp until, well, we do. I can no longer scoop ashes from the fireplace without my mind wandering. I can no longer gaze upon the ashes of Ash Wednesday without thinking “My father is now dust.” And someday we will be again too.
Image Courtesy, Wiki Commons
*In recent years, when I was in full clergy mode, I preached on Ash Wednesday about the awe and wonder of being made of stardust and one day returning to the cosmos. That's the thing about being made of dust; it is both a painful and magical truth.