Act the First
Christians who observe Ash Wednesday are an even tinier sliver of the population than rank and file Sunday church goers are. So when when a practicing Christians who just left an Ash Wednesday service waltz into a grocery store with black stuff on their foreheads, the majority of people think they forgot to wash their faces. Nothing a good washcloth and some soap and water couldn’t take care of.
This is the day when the historic church snatches away the lace covering that has been concealing our brokenness and mortality. We’re supposed to look them straight in the eye, these two: We haven’t loved God or neighbor and our shelf life is limited. When it comes to a staring contest with these twins we’re the ones who avert our eyes every time.
Act the Second
On this Ash Wednesday one soul ended his life’s journey just as another began. Kenny passed the baton to Stella. While we are in life, we are in death. While we are in death, we are in life.
Act the Third
I’ve received my share of ashes and worn them as the sign they are. As I leaned forward a smudgy finger moved across my forehead in the shape of the cross. X marks the spot I often think to myself. And I have to admit, beyond all my rationalizations, how I really am and how life is. And when I am capable of surrendering I’m driven to the mercy of God.
But then there is the imposing of them on someone else. That’s what pastors get to do year after year. And it’s an entirely different story.
Here is the thing: In this power-laden ritual, you are saying, through the tradition of the church, that none of us are going to make out of this world alive. And we’re also saying that there are times when we’ve missed the mark by a mile. And you place this sign on each face that comes before you.
There are the old, wrinkled faces, whose time for this world is really not that long. There are those who are wanting to find a faith that matters. Your loved ones show up, your children and spouses and family, and you mark them the same. Here is the nervous teenager who is concerned about appearance, and then come the smooth faces of the very young. What could a child possibly know about corruption or death? Not much, not yet. But they will. And that’s the reason the church teaches about it now and not later.
When this moment comes, of imposing the ashes, and my fingers mark the sign on these foreheads, it is impossible for me to be tender enough. If I could use a feather, I would. There is no way I can say the words, from dust you have come, and to dust you will return, with enough compassion.
If I could, I would hold each person’s life as one does a newborn baby, rocking them gently in protective arms. But all I have are the ashes, the sign, the words, and a love that never seems deep enough for the task.
Make it enough, O God.