Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. This begins the important Church season of Lent. Robin & I will be getting up early tomorrow morning to participate in the 6:30 a.m. Ash Wednesday Service at the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville. They offer Ash Wednesday Services at 6:30 a.m. and at noon. I was asked to assist with the Imposition of the Ashes at the early service. I appreciate being asked.
You see, Ash Wednesday services are important to me — when I can attend. Some years, since my retirement, I’ve had to kind of search around for a nearby church that was holding such a service — this is not generally advertised on the church signs or on the church web sites.
I feel like something is missing if Ash Wednesday isn’t part of my Lent.
But, I haven’t always felt that way about it.
I think the Weidman United Methodist Church was the first church I served that insisted on having a “real” Ash Wednesday Service — I mean with ashes and all.
Prior to that time, Ash Wednesday had never been a big deal for me. I don’t remember attending an Ash Wednesday service as a child or as a young adult. I was brought into the faith more in the revivalistic & holiness tradition than in the liturgical tradition. I was taught to scorn “empty ritual.” So, a tradition like Ash Wednesday would mean little to me. What’s the point? And ritual and form were always suspect.
Furthermore, Ash Wednesday doesn’t even commemorate anything in the Bible or the life of Christ. It only marks the beginning of Lent, which is a season in the Church Year.
So, from that point of view, it was a little hard to even connect with it.
And, many of the churches that I served in the early part of my pastoral career didn’t seem to care about Ash Wednesday any more than I did.
I seem to recall one pastoral charge where we held Ash Wednesday services. But, it was a preaching service: no ashes. I think we had communion.
However, being in the ministry did acquaint me with the Church Year, which can be a helpful way of presenting the different aspects of the faith, through preaching and through worship. So, I became accustomed to the season of Lent.
And, when the Weidman Church said they had Ash Wednesday services, I said fine. And, do you have the imposition of ashes during the service? Yes, they said. We do. Oh, I see. I hadn’t done that before.
A colleague in the area gave some ashes to use — from palms she had burned the previous year. She had plenty.
And, so we had a real Ash Wednesday Service. It was nothing new to the people who came to the service.
But, it was something new to me!
I followed the directions in one of the official United Methodist worship books. It said this was not a communion service. That was a surprise — but I could see the reasoning behind what they were saying. I followed the liturgy in the book and the directions they gave. I preached on one of the Ash Wednesday texts (in the lectionary, they are always the same, every year). Then came the Imposition of Ashes.
It was actually the first time I had ever been to a service where this happened. And, stranger than that, I was the one conducting this service.
It felt strange to me. It was like the complete opposite of offering Holy Communion. Offering communion has always felt to me like offering life and salvation and hope. But, now I was offering death.
“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
Mortality. It’s something we rarely think about. It something most of us don’t want to think about. But, it’s true: we are all going to die. Our time on earth is brief.
At first it felt strange to be doing this. In fact, at first, I didn’t want to do it.
Yet, as I did, I found the reminder of mortality strangely comforting — and bonding. I had spent far too long ignoring the fact of death.
There is a strange comfort that comes from remembering we are dust.
Several years ago, I read these thoughts from an Episcopal priest named Donald Schell. He is writing about his experience of Lent, and he says:
Later one Ash Wednesday, as I was nearing forty, I had another small breakthrough. That morning of marking each person’s forehead with ashes and saying the Prayer Book’s words, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,’ I felt God’s mercy in those stark words and a wave of tenderness for our fragile humanity. l was blessing the finitude of people God loved beyond measure. I’ve looked forward to Ash Wednesday ever since.
Though all Lent after I first learned that it was a mercy to remember we are dust, I thought and prayed into this sense that our mortality wasn’t only tragic. I couldn’t explain just how our God-given finitude (including our boundaries of birth and death) was a gracious gift, but since then, I’ve always heard “remember you are dust,” as genuine Good News. (Found here.)
One year after the Ash Wednesday service in Weidman, Robin and I had to stop at the store. We forgot the sign of the cross was still on our foreheads in ashes. And, it was a pleasant experience. At the store, we saw other people whose foreheads were also marked by the sign of the cross.
And, we felt a bond with them.
So, now, when I know it’s Ash Wednesday — and I don’t have any other commitments for that day — I want to find a church that has a “real” Ash Wednesday service. I do it to join with others in the community of faith.
I do it to remind myself that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.