As I prepared for Ash Wednesday this year, there were two questions that kept rolling around in my mind. First, why is Ash Wednesday so popular? Why do we have so many services and Masses here in our collaborative parishes on this day and why are the churches always so full for them? Did you know that Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation? Yet, there are many more people here today than we typically see on those days.
Is the popularity because people like the black smear of ashes on their foreheads so they can go out and visibly and boldly proclaim their beliefs to the world? Maybe… but many attend a service or Mass at the end of the day and so there’s not a lot of world who will ever actually see the smudge on their forehead.
Why is Ash Wednesday so popular? That’s the first question.
The second question relates to the choice we have when it comes to the actual distribution of ashes. The minister can say one of two things: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” A few years ago, I used the second, the one that states: “be faithful to the gospel.” I don’t know why I chose it… maybe just to do something a little different. Wouldn’t you know… I got a lot of feedback that people preferred, much preferred in fact, the traditional saying… about dust and the fact that we will one day return to it. I just chalked this up to the fact that we have a tendency to be creatures of habit and are sometimes inclined to nostalgia, to tradition. I didn’t think much about it at the time.
But this year, when I pondered the first question about the popularity of Ash Wednesday, I wondered about our preference to be reminded that we are dust and will once again be dust.
I wonder if we just like and need the reminder that we are dust, nothing, mere lifeless particles… and that without the touch of life that God gave us when he created us and without the Holy Spirit who accompanies us and without Jesus as our teacher and model… then we are nothing. Nothing at all.
So much of our faith tradition includes a reminder and celebration of the glory that is to come. And that is uplifting and beautiful. But without the cue, without the periodic acknowledgement that without God in our lives, we are nothing… then perhaps the message of glory gets a bit lost. Or watered down. Or less poignant somehow.
Could we ever truly understand redemption without first experiencing suffering?
Is it possible to be found without first being lost?
What is the meaning of hope if there is no hopelessness?
Is there light without darkness?
Can there be an Easter Sunday without Good Friday?
And what is glory… without dust?