One year when I worked as the junior and senior high youth coordinator at a church, I got to participate in the Ash Wednesday service.
My background was in the same denomination but we hadn’t really marked Ash Wednesday in any particular way that I recall. We always had Wednesday night church, so an Ash Wednesday might mention of the start of the Lenten season (the lead up to Easter), and even go so far as to encourage us to give up something for Lent. There was no somber service that I remember, no special candles and certainly no marks made on people’s foreheads. That was something Catholics did, and we weren’t totally sure about them anyway (I’ve come way off my high-horse about that, by the way.).
The Wednesday when I helped with the congregation’s service, I was asked to administer the ashes. It wasn’t only me up there, but I was the youngest, and I was female. I would stand alongside two other people, both older. The man next to me was a longstanding fixture of the church.
I felt the significance build as I approached the event.
The service went along smoothly and the time came for me to go up front and play my part.
It was a divine and holy moment.
People I cared about, people I served, students I led, these all came to the altar. As they stood in front of me, I made a smudgy cross on their foreheads and repeated a phrase, the specifics escape me now but it was to the point of “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The ashes were a sign of penitence, contrition, and acknowledgment of sin. It almost felt as if I was bestowing a blessing upon these friends. I remember being teary and wishing I could kiss everyone right on their mark of the cross.
And at the end of the service we all wore the ashes.
This year I wanted to attend an Ash Wednesday service.
Something in my spirit desired the ritual, the darkened space, the high ceiling and quiet corners. But despite my research and efforts, I couldn’t make it happen.
I know that the outward sign of ashes are not necessary, that it is a condition of the heart. My heart. But there is something about wearing the ashes as a mark that lines up the image I project with the inner state of things.
My inner state is such that I get mad and raise my voice with my kids.
I bend the truth rather than have the hard conversation.
I ask leading questions or make (what I intend to be) subtle suggestions to try and get my way.
I lack generosity.
But I wouldn’t let you know it by looking at me.
Wearing the ashes reminds me that no matter how much progress I’ve made in taming my inner turmoil, I still screw up. And there is a freedom in those times when our outside and our inside line up, when the façade and neatly colored lines get wonky and the gaps can be seen.
There are still theological ideas that get my brain in a twist and I want to dig deeper into the various school of thought on alternative to substitutionary atonement, but I know this:
Jesus, out of His great love, came for me. He came for you. And whatever you decide to do with that – accept, reject, ignore – is up to you.
I’m missing Ash Wednesday this year, like I have many other years. Even though I’m not in a church today, my heart is in the right place.
Do you have a tradition of participating in Ash Wednesday or Lent? How does that look for you, and are there elements that make it especially significant?