As a priest, I find Ash Wednesday to be the most difficult celebration of the Church. One might think funerals are harder; but by the time we get to a funeral, the loss has already happened, and the people are gathered for a celebration of life and resurrection. But Ash Wednesday is much more challenging. The liturgy is the most honest, vulnerable, and sobering of our liturgies. We gather in community, stripping away all appearances of success, faithfulness, and achievement, and we confess our deepest failures and separation from God – as if standing naked before our Lord. And then, a priest rubs gritty ash upon our foreheads, and tells us, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As someone who has experienced the worship from the pews, I know how powerful the liturgy is. It’s as if the Church says to us, “I know everyone out there thinks you have it all together. But we both know the truth – that you have a long way to go before you have it all together. They see your strength and power; I see your weakness and vulnerability.” The intimacy of the liturgy, experienced within a community of people going through the same exposure, can be both unnerving and deeply comforting. Out in the world, we are alone, trying to prove ourselves. Inside the church walls, we are together, admitting we cannot prove ourselves.
As a priest, I have the privilege of guiding people through that powerful experience. It is so powerful, that I sometimes struggle to perform the actions the liturgy. As I say those words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I know that I am saying those words to a preschooler, who does not fully understand death; to a woman who has battled breast cancer and is in remission; to an elderly man who may be closer to death than we want to admit; to a widow or widower who lost their spouse earlier in life than they should have. The weight of that pronouncement is palpable every single time I say it – and it makes my own mortality that much more real.
If you have not yet received ashes today, I encourage you find a church or Ashes-to-Go station. It is a tremendous gift to be seen as you truly are, and to kneel alongside others who are trying to be faithful to the charge God has given us. And if you cannot make it today, know that the entire season of Lent is available to you to continue the journey of remembering you are dust, and finding purpose before you return to that dust.