I’ve always enjoyed Ash Wednesday services. I enjoy them not because they make me happy, but because they are powerful. The reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return is an important reminder. The feeling of the grit of the ash on my forehead helps me to remember the grit of my sin. I enjoy Ash Wednesday services because they help me to refocus my life on God, and it helps me to re-center my existance on God, and God’s transforming work.
I have participated in the imposition of the ashes many times before. Hearing the words “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is always a very sobering experience. Saying the words wrenches my heart. But Ash Wednesday this year, the first Ash Wednesday as the pastor of my church, I had an experience that almost moved me to tears: I looked a three year old girl in the eyes and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The fact of the matter is that she is dust, and she will return to dust, just as I am and I will also. For some reason, it is much more powerful when I say it to a child.
I think about how many years they have ahead of them, how many great things they may do. It is sobering to think about mortality before their life really even began. I suppose, though, that that is the point of Ash Wednesday. That it is not about us — it is about God. We can not do anything lasting. I suppose that is a bit of what Qoheleth was thinking in the composition of Ecclesiastes. The point is that God does the lasting work, and in understanding our mortality, we allow ourselves to be changed by God.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and Lent is a time of repentence, prayer, transformation, and renewal. In order for this transformation and renewal to happen, we have to recenter ourselves on the order of the universe. God is God, I am dust — and in response I will open myself to God’s transformational work so that I can face Easter a renewed person.