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Ashes, Ashes

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/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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ashes, ashes, all fall down…

    We put the mark either on the forehead or on the back of the hand (symbolic of Jesus’ wounds). I used to feel that I was dabbling in a tradition not my own here. But slowly the practice has become my own too. What did Terence say? “Nothing human is alien to me.” So also, nothing Christian is alien to me, and over time a tradition in another part of the church can become my tradition. You are right… it is a powerful ritual. Peace.

    February 23, 2012
    • “Nothing Christian is alien to me.” I like that very much. Thanks, Chris.

      February 23, 2012
  2. Glad you had the chance to do this. I got into the Ash Wednesday thing maybe a decade ago by now and it grows in meaning each year. Unfortunately we could not attend yesterday because of a conflict but H. and I “signed” each other anyway! — Last year, we popped by Superstore after the service. I forgot the black smudge on my forehead, then checking out, the checkout person noticed, “recognized” it and talked to me about how very much she missed not being able to go because she had to work etc. It was a neat connection. — Anyway, enjoyed your reflection!

    February 23, 2012
    • I didn’t go to Superstore, but I did go home to my puzzled children, who wondered what was wrong with my forehead :). As in your Superstore encounter, an interesting conversation ensued…

      February 23, 2012

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