I didn’t grow up with it. It was a strange antiquated concept to me. A black smudge on the forehead announcing to everyone you were just that religious or maybe superstitious to risk such public identification with the Catholic church.
And then I became Presbyterian. And I realized it wasn’t just a Catholic thing.
“From dust you came and to dust you will return.”
Startling words in a society that prizes youth and spends fortunes on beauty creams and sports cars.
I now pass all of my church time in a progressive Christian environment. We focus on justice, awareness, compassion, conversation, education and spiritual practices. Most of all, we talk about God’s love and say over and over, “NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” And I love that.
But it is good to have a day to say, “I’m sorry. I screw up. I am dust.” because everyone does. If the history of the church has taught us anything, I hope it has taught us to be suspicious of those who won’t say those things.
If we didn’t have a day to say it, if we didn’t have a liturgy that at least occasionally included confession, most of us wouldn’t do it. For some, it would be easier to float off into “I’m okay. You’re okay,” and ignore the separation between us and God’s love. For others, it would be easy to think we all hold the truth and everyone else is wrong while forgetting to look at the log in our own eyes. We need Ash Wednesday on all sides of the church.
• • •
This past weekend I had the opportunity to receive my first clearness committee. This Quaker practice is a full two hours to consider an issue that is pressing in one’s life. I spilled out my doubts, my failings, my uncertainty. It was confession at its best: messy and unfiltered ramblings of a part of my story that I don’t air publicly.
On the backs of those unspoken words and jumbled emotions were riding fear and anxiety and self-loathing. And as the words were spoken–as the confession was made–the fear, anxiety and self-loathing came spilling out as well. All this week, I’ve had a song on my tongue and a lighter step. I’ve known that I am loved by God in a way I wouldn’t have known without that Ash Wednesday moment in a sacred circle of friends. I wouldn’t know without my friends taking the ashes of my confession and spreading them on my forehead through their acceptance and affirmation.
• • •
There are so many ways to say, “You are dust.” And progressive churches have all different ways to invite the spirit of this day. At our church tonight, we will be writing down what holds us back from full surrender to the love of God and then burning those papers. We are saying with each imposition of ashes: “The old is gone. The new has begun.”
May it be so.