Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. A day where our mortality is rubbed in our faces, when we hear those haunting words from Genesis—“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I remember imposing ashes for the first time as a student minister, officiating the Ash Wednesday service with our senior minister. He shared tips and tricks along the way—mix some oil in with the ashes to make them go on smoother. If you can’t find any consecrated oil, olive oil from the church kitchen works just as well. Look people in the eyes when you tell them the holy words even if they look down at their feet. Rub off the ashes as much as you can before you serve Communion, you don’t want to get ash all over the bread! All of these little details the average person in the pews has no idea their pastor may be contemplating as we say to each beloved child of God: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As the first person stepped up from their pew to receive ashes from me, I realized that I had forgotten to ask my colleague how exactly I should impose the ashes. Yes, of course we must make the sign of the cross, but should I use my index finger or thumb? What was he using over there? And how large was the cross supposed to be? A small sign in the middle of the forehead or a large cross you could see from five feet away? I couldn’t see well in the darkened sanctuary, so alternated using my thumb and index finger, making the sign of the cross on each person who stood before me. Half of them would at least be correct, or maybe it didn’t even matter that much after all. Oh, those small details we can fret and fuss about during worship!
When finished, I looked out on the congregation to see my small, petite crosses and his huge crosses on the foreheads of the faithful. Yes, they were different but they were all holy. We looked at each other and imposed ashes on each other, repeating for the last time that evening: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Upon returning to my modest dorm room that night, my first Ash Wednesday as a Seminarian serving a congregation, I looked into the mirror and discovered that my cross was indeed huge—it went all the way from between my eyes into my hairline. Ashes were even in my scalp! My thumb and index finger in particular were covered in ashes, and I felt as if I were covered in dust. Though I left my cross in place, I began to scrub my hands clean. Only the ash had seeped in and was terribly hard to remove from my skin. Rubbing it in before Communion meant that I truly had rubbed that ash deeply into my hands.
I scrubbed and scrubbed and thought about this holy act just performed. My stained hands became a powerful sign of my ministry—of marking God’s children with ashes to remind them that none of us will live forever, ashes marking our mortality that don’t always come off easily in the end. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday is an odd day. An uncomfortable day. A holy day. To be in solidarity with Christians everywhere, I always repeat those traditional words from Genesis even though there are other liturgical options out there. Knowing that generations of Christians, the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, were also marked with a cross of ashes, hearing those distinct words, makes the act more powerful.
Here’s what I mean every Ash Wednesday when I say them:
God’s beloved child, now we are all east of Eden.
Our lives are fragile and will not be free from heartache and pain.
Remember that the God who formed us out of the dust of the ground loves you more than you could ever know.
Remember to make each day count, for none of us will live forever.