It seems a little strange that a small pile of dirt gives me such comfort, but it happens to me every single year.
Since we Baptists don’t generally do the Ash Wednesday thing the experience of the ashes is pretty new for me. Because of my historical unfamiliarity with the rite, every year it seems that some kind of logistical hilarity ensues. (I’ve never had an experience quite like my colleague Elizabeth’s, but you know what I mean.)
Thank goodness we have a church administrator who comes from a different tradition (who has a little bit of sense) and who knows where to order ashes. (In my defense: if you suddenly had to produce a pile of ashes would your first thought really be the Cokesbury catalog? I rest my case.)
Once we actually acquire the ashes and get to worship, though, that’s when the holiness starts.
To me, anyway.
I get to stand at the front, get my hands covered in soot, and share these incredibly touching moments with individuals as they worship. There’s a holy moment when I put the ashes on a forehead and say “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and then, “But the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” Our eyes meet and we both know that, for just this moment, we frail humans get to hang on tight to a little piece of forever.
This year it was a little different for me. After the service, after I’d scrubbed and scrubbed my fingers and gotten as much ash off of them as I could, I spent the rest of the day working. But that night I got to worship again, and this time I did not administer ashes. I just sat next to them, in the flickering light of a whole bunch of candles, at an hour of meditation and prayer to end the day.
As I sat there praying I looked up occasionally to see the ashes on the plate set on the altar. Just a little pile of dirt, but it seemed to call me closer, extending to me the comfort of a smudged finger and a kinship in the reality of existing as a little pile of nothing compared to the big Everything Else. I put my clean fingers back in the ashes, crumbling them until my hands were sooty again . . . and, sure enough, the dark smudges all over everything brought me comfort again this year.
I think the ashes help me remember: I am nothing, really. But the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.
Thanks be to God.