Last night I forgot the oil to mix with the ashes. For some reason, we pastors never think to get the ashes until the last minute (or maybe that’s just me). Every Ash Wednesday I feel like I step over a threshold and begin the steep drop to Easter. Maybe I try to hold off the day because I’m never quite ready for Lent, even though I love it. Before last night’s service, I found someone willing to go home and grab some oil out of her kitchen. It felt appropriate to mix the ashes with oil from a partially-used up bottle—oil used to make nightly dinners. Ashes are earthly and homey, not some mysterious concoction I put together using various potions in my office. Ashes are us.
I remember frantically burning leaves on the front stoop of our open country parsonage while preparing to preside over my very first Ash Wednesday service. I shivered out in the prairie wind, trying to prevent the smoldering ash in my metal pie tin from blowing away. No one told me leaves don’t make good ashes. I spent too much time picking out various sticks and chunks of earth before mixing them with the olive oil in my cupboard—because new pastors do hear about the horrors of mixing ashes with water. Doing so creates lye, which burns skin. A secret part of me has always liked the image of people leaving the church with little crosses seared onto their foreheads—a Harry Potter-like mark of our sin and redemption.
Marking people with ashes is emotional. The first few years I held back tears every time I placed them on the smooth foreheads of infants and children. Each year I wonder who is receiving the ashes for the last time. While people come forward, time stops and the repetition of the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” sits heavy on my heart. I’m humbled by the intimacy of declaring death while people allow me into their personal space. Some people close their eyes. Others meet mine, listening intently to my words as I push their hair aside and smudge ashes onto their skin. The earthiness of it grounds us. God isn’t far away in some abstract place we hope to see someday. Oh no—God is in the ashes and my words, on our skin and in our hearts, keeping us tethered to the earth that creates and sustains us.
Sometimes we want God to be abstract, to put God into a box pushed against the wall in the living room, to put God in a crate when we leave the house. We don’t want to be reminded of the false promises we chase every day—promises of younger skin, a fulfilled life through whole foods and yoga, an easy solution in the next self-help book. Ash Wednesday takes these promises and exposes them for what they are—empty. The truth is in the ashes. We are mortal. Our days are numbered. Nothing will change that truth. Only God gives us hope and salvation as we live day-to-day. God sits in the ashes with us, in the depression and addiction and hopelessness and broken promises and bad choices and pornography and abuse and SIN. And out of these ashes—through the cross—rises the resurrection promise and the freedom to give it all to God who has changed your life already through the love and grace and mercy found in Jesus Christ.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Amen.