In my line of work, I deal with death a lot. The first two calls a family usually makes when a loved one dies are to the funeral home and to the priest. I have done funerals for people I have known and loved, and for people who I have never met. I have done funerals for people who were deeply involved with and committed to the Church, and for people who actively avoided the church. I have done funerals for grandmothers, husbands, sisters, and children. I have held the hand of a shallow-breathing senior who had lived a long life but was approaching the last hours, and have touched the tiny hand of a stillborn. Death is ever present in my life, always a phone call away.
So you would think that Ash Wednesday would not be that jarring to me. A day meant to remind us of the fragility of life, that we are dust and to dust we shall return, really should not be that extraordinary. But every year it gets me. Though I deal with death when it comes my way, Ash Wednesday is a little different. Ash Wednesday involves reminding people who may be nowhere near death to ponder the shortness of life. Each time I spread gritty ashes on a forehead, my whole being shutters. I think of the many laughs I have shared with the person my age; I think of the illness someone in their 50s overcame and the fullness of life they have enjoyed since then; I think of the bounding energy of the six-year old and how much joy they bring; and I think of the quiet confidence and wisdom of the grandmother figure. Every time I say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I feel like I am whispering a dark truth into each person’s ears. There is nothing more sobering than those words, than those grainy ashes, than those shared moments of eye contact. And no matter how well I clean up afterwards, a little black residue remains on my thumb, reminding me how close death lingers.
Though the reality of Ash Wednesday is sobering, and perhaps something one might want to avoid, I find that most people who come for ashes are relieved. They are relieved for the gift of a church that will remind them of things of ultimate importance. They are relieved for some perspective and levity in a world that tells them if they push more, do more, achieve more, they will somehow be happier. They are relieved to be shaken out of the distractions or the fog of life and to be invited into a sense of clarity and purpose. I certainly am relieved in that same way. Because I am the solo priest at my parish, I usually have a parishioner also spread ashes on my forehead. No matter who I end up asking, there is always a moment of shared humility and connection. I am grateful to the church for the gift of Ash Wednesday and the invitation for a holy Lent.