About five years ago a man stopped me in the grocery store. He said, “Excuse me, miss, but you have dirt on your forehead. Just wanted to let you know.” I paused for a second wondering how to respond. Should I just say thank you? Should I tell him that I know and it’s for Ash Wednesday? I didn’t want to make him feel foolish for telling me because if I really had dirt on my forehead, I’d want to know!
So, I thanked him and said that it was a special religious holiday and although it might look like a blob of dirt now, it’s supposed to be a cross of ashes.
He looked puzzled. I didn’t know what to do, so I waved goodbye and continued to the check-out. I stood there thinking to myself, “Dang it, Kate, you missed this great opportunity to have a possibly awesome conversation! You should have told him more about Ash Wednesday.” To be honest, I still kick myself for missing this chance. But I panicked! Not just because I wanted to be polite, but I’m not sure if five years ago I knew exactly how to put the tradition of Ash Wednesday into words.
Trying to explain any tradition to someone who isn’t familiar with it is difficult. From the inside, it all makes sense. We come to church and we put ashes on our forehead as a ministry leader recites Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a ritual we do every year at the beginning of Lent. It reminds us of our fallible nature and the reality of sin.
Okay, now writing that down, it sounds even more confusing and gloomy. Yet, there is beauty in this penance as we acknowledge what we lack. During Ash Wednesday, we acknowledge not just that we are sinners, but that we cannot cleanse ourselves without God.
We live like we are all toddlers trying to eat. We sit in our highchairs with a bowl of apple sauce in front of us. Our parent is close by watching; not holding the spoon or helping because we have exclaimed that we can do it ourselves. We begin to eat. Maybe we get a couple of successful spoonful’s, but eventually, the apple sauce is everywhere. It’s on the ground, all over our eating area, behind our bibs, in our hair, and all over our faces. We are talented at making messes. The apple sauce is like sin that is in our lives. We didn’t necessarily intend to make such a mess, or even know we were, but it’s here and we are filthy.
Thank the Lord we have the most patient parent in the world; God, the one who comes running with a rag to wipe our faces.
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” God took dirt and ash on the ground to create humankind. God saw that it was good and created another. It is through God and with God that we exist and because of that alone we rejoice in God’s holy presence. Yet, God did not stop there. God came down to dwell among us. It is through Christ we understand the relentless love of God; a love that displays a willingness to die so we could be made free. God washes us through Baptismal waters where we are marked with the cross, renewed and made clean.
So, if you’re asked why you have dirt on your forehead today, remember that you are dust, created by the hands of God. Remember that we wear ashes as a sign of penance, acknowledging our broken and sinful nature that God washes clean. And remember that for God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes may not perish but may have eternal life.
Let us pray: Gracious God, out of your love and mercy you breathed into dust the breath of life, creating us to serve you and our neighbors. Hear our prayers and strengthen us to face our mortality with confidence in the mercy of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.