It seems a little strange that a small pile of dirt gives me such comfort, but it happens to me every single year.
Baptists don’t generally do the Ash Wednesday thing, and I didn’t grow up in a tradition where Ash Wednesday was familiar, so the first time I experienced Ash Wednesday I felt transported into a particularly holy and sacred space. Even now, after years of practicing the tradition and even administering the ashes myself, somehow it always seems extra holy and extra special (it also is a church occasion rife with logistical hilarity, which could easily be another column or two, but if you need an Ash Wednesday laugh, read about the experience of a colleague of mine).
Nadia Bolz-Weber says this day is particularly special and holy because this holiday–Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent in general–belong solely to the church. That is, modern consumerism hasn’t co-opted Ash Wednesday with an Ash Wednesday version of the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. That might be part of it for me, yes. But there’s more.
I think some of that holiness has to do with being real.
Being real, of course, is something I think we should always do in church, but the truth is we don’t often. Because we come to church on Sunday morning with the expectations of the world around us lingering on our lives, we just keep the old patterns going: dress up, smile big, look like you’ve got it all together.
But not Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday we all get to just say it: we’re flawed and dying, and sometimes the living of this human life hurts. A lot.
I love it when 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 are telling the truth. The whole truth about who we are.
Last year I administered ashes at a mid-day service; that night my colleagues did the imposition of ashes and I just sat in the flickering light of a whole bunch of candles, at an hour of meditation and prayer to end the day.
But I recall that as I sat there praying, I looked up occasionally to see the ashes on the plate set on the altar. Just a 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. It was a symbol of the freedom that comes with being real.
And so I couldn’t resist. After worship 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. And what a relief to just be able…to tell the truth.