It has been forever since I’ve occupied this space with current thoughts and words from my pen. A year to be exact…I have missed this quiet corner of the multiverse. As a part of my Lenten journey this year, I have committed to sharing thoughts and reflections each day…bear with me…there are many bad habits to break. My life is so different now than when I first started this blog and I find myself with little time to write thoughts (I am so often sharing them through spoken word) and far too many “to do” piles on my desk. So here we go…
“Remember you are dust…and to dust you shall return…”
The pastor speaks with hushed tones as he reaches toward me. He brushes away wisps of hair that refuse to be confined by the barrette at my temple. His hand sweeps warm across my forehead as the acrid scent of palm ash and musky smell of frankincense and myrrh mingle in my nostrils.
My Grandma always told me that prayers are a sweet aroma in heaven and I wonder if this is what it will smell like- life consumed completely by age and fire and the sweet perfume of holy gifts well spent.
The ashes feel strange on my forehead- not sticky, but not dry either. I ponder the words as the pastor speaks them over and over.
Over my head- middle aged and graying beneath vibrant hair color…
Over an elderly woman in a wheelchair, breath of life whirring from a portable green tank slung over the back of her chair…
Over the young mother with twin Tasmanian devils dashing between her legs and bumping off people like bumper cars…
Over the precious baby…just a few months old…crossing her eyes as the pastor crosses her forehead.
He speaks mortality over us as a blessing. The cross writ on our foreheads as a reminder to die to self and sin and to count our numbered minutes precious.
This is my first time receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday…coming new to experience a tradition not my own and I find the service profound and deeply moving. I bear my commitment like a brand and sit in my car letting solemn moments pass as I seek God’s heart with my own… and confess that I have been struggling with my faith these last months. This is my mortal moment of reckoning and it steals my breath and steels my heart and I find in surrender to Christ the freedom to be okay.
I think you are supposed to confess BEFORE you receive this ashy symbol, but I came to this place as a student, with a purely academic motive. Not seeking God, but seeking an understanding of a faith tradition that has long felt shrouded in mystery. I researched before I came. I knew the ashes were made from the burnt remains of last years’ palm fronds. I knew that they are mixed with fragrant oils to dilute the acidity of the ash. I knew the phrases that would be spoken over me. I knew that this tradition has rich symbolism that draws people close to their own mortality and sinfulness. I knew this was the way many enter into the waiting of Lent. I knew everything there was to know and nothing at all…all at once.
I, being ever the student, had reached out to my friends in the clergy in the weeks leading up to this day. I asked what Ash Wednesday meant to them and how it affected them. I planned a purely journalistic report based on history, research, their answers and my would be experience. Their answers stunned me, awed me and, yet, in no way prepared me for the beauty of the imposition of ashes. Overwhelmingly, my friends spoke of the beauty of speaking out loud human mortality and the impact of repeating that process over people from all walks of life.
My new friend, Pastor Clint Schnekloth, tells me: “As a pastor the most powerful part of the imposition of ashes is writing them on all the different foreheads, from heads at death’s door, to heads recently emerged from the womb. The range and texture of our mortality is a powerful, tangible thing.”
And my blog sister and fellow writer, Sara Miles, whose book, City of God, a friend gave me last year says, “Almost invariably, the people I give ashes to– parents, old ladies, gang kids, hipsters, day laborers, drunks– say “thank you.” I say it, too: touching strangers with such intimacy in public, admitting what we share (our mortality), feels like a gift, one that turns the lies of our culture upside down.”
My Yoda and spiritual director, Judy Turner of Christview Ministries, tells me that she believes “at the beginning of Lent, the imposition of ashes can be a meaningful, tangible way of expressing our commitment to die to sin so the Savior can live more fully in us. It is a powerful reminder of our mortality to help us focus our lives on what is eternally significant.”
They were beautiful sentiments, really. An indication that serving a community as Pastor through these rituals comes with its own equally charged graces. They gave me insight into their lives as leaders of church communities…but they didn’t prepare me for the moment ash touched head and contrition settled into soul. Neither for the sensation of solidarity as I glanced around at the 30 or so foreheads marked as mine…infant, child, adult and elder…all bearing the blessing of our death to sin. It was stunning, and powerful and I am forever changed by it.
we have sinned against heaven and before you.
We do not fully live as your sons and daughters.
We use your gifts to our own ends.
Forgive us and restore us,
that we may resist all that draws us away from you,
and be at peace with one another. Amen.