The Ash Wednesday wake-up call is the start of a spiritual spring-cleaning I always love, even when the spiritual work is heavy and messy. I love the readings. I love the whole sense of ancient tribalism that accompanies the smearing of ashes onto foreheads—this outward sign of penance, belonging, and self-revelation: I belong to Christ, and I am a sinner.

I even love being reminded, as the priest or deacon marks me, that I am dust, and to dust I will return.

There is only one problem with Ash Wednesday: the sermon. It's always the sermon.

I don't know what it is with priests, but they just don't get it. Most of us, without a laughtrack or a commentator or a jumbotron to keep us focused, only have a four-minute attention span, and they keep insisting on giving us 10-12 minutes—even on Ash Wednesday at 5:00 p.m., when people are tired and thinking about supper and the kids are getting cranky.

Were I a priest, this is the sermon I would deliver before we got going with the ashes:

"You remember the movie Moonstruck? It's the story about an Italian family in Brooklyn, a mother named Rose, a father named Cosmo, and their daughter, Cher.

"There's a part where the mother, Rose—who suspects her husband of cheating—says to the father, 'Cosmo, I just want you to know that no matter what you do, you're gonna die, just like everyone else!'

"And so is everyone in this church. You're going to die. And no matter how well you think you're doing, you're screwing up, and I don't need to tell you where you're screwing up because you know where you're screwing up.

"Later in the film, Rose warns her daughter . . . Cher . . . 'your life's goin' down the toilet!'

"So is yours. You only have the one life in which to make the right choices and do the right thing, and no matter how well you think you're taking care of it, you're falling short, and I don't have to tell you where you're falling short, because you know where you're falling short.

"So, you come here; you get ashes. We're glad. We like seeing you here and wish you would come by more often. But while you're getting the ashes, think about it for a few minutes, okay? About why you came here?

"Ashes on the forehead. Getting smudged. It's a primitive tribal thing; it marks us as belonging to the Tribe of Christ. It harkens back to ancient penitential practices and it is also an outward sign of all we will become, whether we are kings or kooks: ashes.

"What are you going to do between the time you get these ashes smudged on your forehead, and you actually become them?

"There is another scene in Moonstruck, where Cher goes to confession and tells the priest she has slept with her fiancé's brother. The priest says, 'That's a pretty big sin!' Cher winces and says, 'I know.'

"'Reflect on your life,' the priest begs, gesturing with his hands.

"Think about your life. Get moving on the things you need to fix. You feed your family, you feed yourself, don't forget to feed your spirit.

"Consider going to confession, like Cher; chances are you have less compelling sins to unload and even if you don't, well, don't worry too much about it because we priests have all heard worse, and we love to assist Christ in saying the words of absolution, just as much as you love to hear them.

"Maybe even more.

"We are Baptized. We belong to Christ; in the world, but not of it—or we should be.

"The ashes testify to that; they say: I am claimed for more than the passing age, or the grass that fades. I am claimed for Eternity!

"If we are doing this Christian thing right, these ashes should also say that we are dead to the world but alive in Christ—or that we're at least sincerely trying—that we are in exile, ghosts, wandering these plains until we rest in Christ, in glory. We are, in a sense, Dead Men Walking.

"But that's another movie."