There’s Just Something About Ash Wednesday: A Reflection

I have noticed over the past several years that more and more people each year come to church on Ash Wednesday, present pandemic notwithstanding. It’s not a Holy Day of Obligation. We get a dirty black smudge across our foreheads and you could hardly call that a major draw. So, why is it so popular?

And… I always thought it was ironic that we hear today a Gospel about the importance of subtly and not showing off our faith for attention all the while doing something here that visually screams: “look at me, look at me!”

There’s just something about Ash Wednesday…

I’d like to say… that it starts the beginning of our most solemn season, Lent, and that coming here to mark that occasion and our desire to repent and prepare compels us all to come into church.

I’d like to say… that we increasingly feel isolated and separated from a popular culture that is running off in a direction that not all of us feel is a good one, and so we are here as a form of rebellion and solidarity.

I’d like to say… that it’s a way of making a statement that our faith is important to us and that having a fat black smudge on our foreheads is just our way of emphasizing that point.

I’d like to say all these things and maybe they’re true. Or at least partly true. I’m not completely sure…

But this year, I am wondering if there’s something else too. Because of the pandemic, there have been a number of conversations going on about how to safely distribute ashes and the choices have ranged from not distributing them at all, to simply sprinkling them over the heads of the recipients (which is actually appropriate in our Church and a custom throughout much of the world) to using a Q-tip to smear ashes on foreheads. I’ve been following this discussion here and I’ve also been following it at the company where I work, which is a health care provider. It’s not a Catholic or even religiously affiliated one – which is what makes this really interesting – and there has been a huge outcry there at the prospect of not distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday this year. Patients, their families and our employees want their ashes. Even some who are not Catholic.

There’s just something about Ash Wednesday…

On Ash Wednesday, we consider the reality of our mortal lives, that we are limited, that we will not last forever, that we will fade away just as dust blows away in the wind. Here now, and then gone tomorrow. Confronting our mortality is a difficult thing to do. But, it’s something that we must all do at some point. It’s a somber fact and Ash Wednesday reminds us of it… points it out to us in a fat black smudgey and not-very-subtle sort of way.

But then, like Lent itself, we know that we build towards an up note. We remember that this story has a happy ending and I think maybe so many of us come in here because we’re drawn to the reminder of our mortality and then – staring directly into the face of it – we acknowledge that death is not an end. That our bodies may blow away like dust in the wind, but there’s something else in us that prevails. That endures. We see all this in the black dust in much the same way that we look at the stark horror of a man hanging from a crucifix and see hope and salvation.

The mark of fleeting ashes goes together with the durability of our souls.

The symbol of a crucifix fits with the hope of a resurrection… just as Good Friday and Easter can never be separated.

Our suffering pairs with our redemption.

And the consideration of our own weaknesses and failings necessities our need for redemption in the first place and for Jesus Christ himself.

I believe we come here on this day to be lifted up. To confront our mortality while at the same time reminding ourselves and anyone who sees the smudge on our faces that we were built for more. That after the drop comes the lift, that pushing through and marching onward and never taking our eyes off of our Savior is what will ultimately take us past Calvary and then out of the open tomb on a sun-filled Easter morning.

There is the dust… and then there is eternity.

There is the dark… but because of Christ, we can be people of the light.

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