This past Sunday morning, our church family decided to do an “Ash Sunday” service since horribly inclement weather forced us to cancel church on Wednesday. That morning was also the first time I have ever helped with the imposition of the ashes. I was expecting it to be solemn, and a bit emotional in that sense. I’ve experienced the particular emotions of sorrow over my sin and remembrance of my humanness through participating in Ash Wednesday services over the years. At times, I have felt those emotions more keenly than at other times, but I was not prepared for the new emotions I experienced as one who was serving.
There is something very uniquely moving about serving in that capacity for a beloved group that has become family. I was standing there watching people come forward who have become cherished family members to me, and I was dipping my thumb in this glass bowl of pitch black ashes—a symbol not only of penitence, but of mortality. I was making the sign of the cross on their foreheads. Some of them were weeping, but with all of them, the sense of heaviness was as palpable as the deep, familial love we shared.
Saying the words, “From dust you have come, to dust you shall return,” reminds me that the people I love really are but dust. They will not always be with me. At some point in time, I am going to grieve the same deep, heart rending loss for them as I have for others who have passed on. Reflecting on this reality in such a tangible way really makes me appreciate the time I have been given with them. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to serve in the imposition of ashes. It gave me a lot to think about, including a deep reflection on all the saints I have loved who have left this broken world in the past year—those whom I deeply miss.
Yet, in the midst of that sorrow over our sin and reminder of the brevity of life, I couldn’t help but notice that the ashes we used were being mingled with a symbol of God’s grace in our lives—the anointing oil that we regularly use during prayer for our people. As the familiar scent wafted up to me, I was reminded that in all things, God’s grace is ever-present in our lives. Despite our sin and our transient nature, God is working and active in our lives. He is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and He never abandons us, even in the midst of our frailty. As the liturgy states, “God remembers that we are but dust.” Like the mingling of harsh black ash with fragrant oil, there is something mysterious about the mingling of God’s grace and our failure—God’s provision and our weakness—that captured my heart.
After all, is that not the nature of healing? These dark ashes that stain my thumb are symbolic of sin and death. But, it is not until we acknowledge that sin and mortality—such to the point that we are willing to wear it out in the open for all to see—that we mingle it with the oil we use to anoint and pray for God’s healing power to come. That hopeful anointing combined with acknowledged weakness is just the recipe for God to meet us and begin the healing work that will change our hearts. We cannot have one without the other.
Though we grieve our sin and the losses we have experienced—though we remember that there are failings and grief yet to come—there is a profound and unfailing hope that the grace of God will not only see us through such hardships, but that Easter is coming. The hope of the resurrection is that we are set free from the power of sin and death. It is true that we must not rush straight to Easter. We must walk through Lent and experience the depth of brokenness and our own bankrupt lives. But, we walk through Lent with the hope that Easter does come.