I led my first ever Ash Wednesday service today. Actually, scratch that. I participated in my first Ash Wednesday service today. My Mennonite Brethren background was decidedly low church and we didn’t really observe Lent or Advent or the Christian year in general. It was Christmas and Easter and that was about it. Everything else was high-church or “liturgical” (as if we weren’t!) or some other negative or, at least, unnecessary practice. And even though in recent years many churches in the Anabaptist tradition have moved toward embracing the Christian calendar, I still had never actually attended an Ash Wednesday service.
Until today. Ours was a small, simple service. A short meditation, a few songs, confession, prayer. And then, the “imposition” of ashes. I was very nervous. What if I get ash in someone’s eye? What if I say the wrong thing? This feels like something a priest should be doing! I felt unsure throughout and desperately hoped that I wouldn’t make a mistake.
And yet, in the midst of the nerves and the uncertainty, it was a very meaningful experience. Whatever else Ash Wednesday might be about, it strikes me as primarily an exercise in truth-telling. In smearing ash on a human being’s forehead and saying, “Remember you are dust”, we tell the truth about human beings—we are finite, we are fallen, and we are in desperate need of forgiveness and grace. In locating our sin and confession within the context of strong words about and symbols of God’s actions and character, we tell the truth about God—gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, rich in love.
How desperately necessary, these twin truths. We do not rise to the level of our preferred self-illusions. And God rises above our highest hopes.