Remember that you are dust and to dust, you shall return.
I am not a huge tradition person. Sure, I appreciate them more as I get older and they allow me to engage in feelings of nostalgia, but generally when it comes to tradition, especially church traditions, I treat them with a kind of reverent suspicion. Having studied church history, I know that clinging to traditions that should have been let go of long before they became an issue has gotten the church into a lot of trouble in the past.
One church tradition that I do love is Ash Wednesday. And it is odd. If an unchurched person walked in on this seemingly random wintery Wednesday, they would see people being marked on their foreheads or hands with ash, with the declaration, “dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Odd, if not concerning that people are being called dirt and then smeared with it.
Death and Dust
I did have a student ask me once, with poorly concealed terror if the ashes were human remains. I was momentarily tempted to let this poor middle-schooler believe that before taking advantage of the teachable moment.
Tradition holds that the ashes are made from burning up the palm branches that were used in the Palm Sunday celebration the year before, not from human remains, although the vivid reminder of the reality of death, the consequence of sin, does draw one’s thoughts there. I love how the story comes full circle in the way we mark the passage of time, year to year.
First, there is the celebration, the misplaced welcoming of a king who had come not to meet the expectations of people, but to free them from the bondage they had become so blind to. A welcome celebration is followed with confusing teachings, an intimate betrayal, pain, death, mourning and then, a victorious resurrection.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days leading up to Good Friday when we mark the crucifixion of Christ. This is a time of preparing our hearts. It is a time of fasting and quiet reflection as we face the truth that our sin is what not only brings our own death but is exactly what drove God himself to death to free us from that bondage.
Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
The old children’s rhyme takes on a deeper and richer meaning for me as I reflect on this tradition. The truth is that death (and ashes) is a part of human reality, a consequence of sin, something we have all fallen to.
Ash, an Old Testament sign of mourning is fitting as we take forty days to see, with eyes wide open, the reality of the sin and separation that drove Christ, out of the most immense love for us, to the cross.
As Christians, we sometimes get the reputation of being happy-clappy, naive, or ignorant- not taking the ish of the world seriously because we have a safety net of wealth and power.
This is a day where we intentionally turn and face the reality of death, knowing that darkness, suffering, pain and sin, both our own and corporate sin- is real. We will not deny it, knowing full well that it is in us, lamenting it, grieving it, and then, after the mourning, we claim hope anyways.