For a guy raised within a Christian heritage that paid minimal attention to the Christian calendar, this was noteworthy.
At a local Anglican Church, I joined a “crowd” of fewer than twenty. For a moment, I wondered if I was in the wrong place. The masses pour forth when the life of Easter is dished out; I suppose it is expected that discussions of dying will thin the crowd.
Service opened with this prayer together:
Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our brokenness, may obtain of You, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Fire and Ashes
After further Scriptures and prayers, the priest shared a few thoughts. He highlighted the season of Lent as a time of spiritual cleansing, a period during which we make choices on how to create extra space: for God’s special arrival and for our sharpened attention.
In speaking of the ashes about to be smudged on each forehead, he pointed out that the upcoming Easter message of resurrection, by its nature, must be preceded by a message of death. Crosses comes before crowns, and fires come before ashes. Steelmakers use repeated burnings to strengthen and solidify their metals. The blacksmith known as Yahweh subscribes to a similar strategy. People of faith are purged toward purity and hardened toward holiness through seasons of fire. To live out Lent is to willingly enter the flames. It is to mark oneself with ashes, convinced that every burn of self-death will be honored by the One in whom abundant life dwells.
All the Same
There is a beautiful solemnity in the imposition of ashes. The priest approached each of us, smudging (or “imposing) a dull black cross on our foreheads as he spoke one simple sentence, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” I watched the first worshipers receive this moment, eyes closed or heads bowed or eyes locked on the priest’s. My turn came and went, and by the end of the semi-circle, all of us bore the mark of mortality. The woman to my right would likely dine at a soup kitchen later that day. The gentleman to my left was a federal judge from Ottawa, in town for the week. The priest himself had been marked by a church member. High and mighty, meek and meager–all lines are erased when dust and ashes are the theme. Most in the room wore silver hair that betrayed the fact that they were further from the dust-birth than I was, but charcoaled crosses now reminded that none of us knew who was closest to their dust-return.
One might take exception to the Ash Wednesday mantra. “I’m not just dust; the part of me that is really me isn’t that.” True enough, but even the objection serves to highlight the point: None of us contain life. We do not generate it or guarantee it. There is One from whom it flows; He is its fountain and its founder.
And if the wearing of a greyed facial mark helps drill that in, then smudge up, my friends!