“What are the ashes about?”

The question was sincere. My church has never done Ash Wednesday before — at least not with ashes, anyway. And so as we began announcing that we’d be offering the imposition of ashes for the first time this year, the woman I was chatting with in the church courtyard was curious — “what are the ashes about?”

Her honest question got me thinking about that sober smudge of cruciform ash the Church will share today, and the meaning that ancient practice makes in us. What are the ashes about?

You are dust. You are loved.

In 2018, for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday fell on the same day as Valentine’s day. For many of those I pastor, like many Christians, this seemed to pose a dilemma. On the one hand, there were Valentine’s plans to be made, with steak, red wine, and indulgences of culinary and other varieties. On the other, it’s Ash Wednesday — a sober day of repentance and fasting. The message of the one day seems to be, “You’re loved.” And the other? “You’re dust.”

The cross-shaped smear pictures the Gospel mystery that both are true. The “bright sadness,” as our Orthodox siblings put it, of Lent is that we are both brief and beloved.

I experienced this poignant paradox in my first Ash Wednesday service. The first Ash Wednesday service I ever experienced was one I led at the church I started in Philadelphia. My wife slowly made her way forward in the line as I offered ashes to the congregation, our daughter (then a toddler) bouncing in her arms. It was a sober, holy moment to mark my beloved wife and daughter with the sign of the cross, look them in the eye one by one, and say to them, with more than a little trembling in my voice, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

He recalls that we are dust

The ancient poetry of Psalm 103 captures this paradox I tasted in some small way that day:

As a father has compassion for his children,
the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows our devisings,
recalls that we are dust.
(Psalm 103.13-14, Robert Alter trans.)

I love the powerful metaphor-mixing in this old Hebrew poem-prayer. The root of the Hebrew word for YHWH’s “compassion” is a version of the word for “womb.” Almighty God is like a father who cares for his children. God cherishes us, small and brief as we are, like a mother cherishes the little ones she’s birthed.

The grace of Ash Wednesday is that the sign of our mortality — the ashes — are offered to us with a sign of our salvation — the cross. The cruciform ashes, the fatherly, guttural care I have for my wife and daughter, marked with a sign of their own mortality that day, are fractals of the bottomless mystery of God’s crucified love in Christ.

You’re dust. You’re loved. That’s what the ashes are about.

Jared Ayers

Jared Ayers serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach, Florida. Prior to this, he founded and served as the senior pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary & the Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 16 years, and have been graced with two sons and a daughter.

8 Comments

  • mstair says:

    You are dust. You are loved.

    Beautiful…

    Mentally I inserted a parenthetical…

    Your are Dust. (And even if you most certainly don’t deserve it) You are loved.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Nice. Thanks. How have I missed the Psalm 130 connection all these years?

  • To me verses 13 and 14 have always gone together. God is aware of our humanity: our inability to comprehend God, our fragility. I have compassion on my grandchildren because they don’t know any better in their misbehavior or ignorance. God knows what I am made of and the limitations inherent to my humanity. Somehow God loves me all the more because of it.
    I agree with you that putting the ashes on your own young child is a most sobering experience.

  • Jeffrey Carpenter says:

    Our church adopted the practice of meeting on Ash Wednesday in the evening , the elders imposing ashes, ten years or so ago, about the same time we initiated intinction during communion. I was an elder at the time, and in both situations, experienced the sacred, the beautiful, but also the gut-wrenching involvement in each participant’s individual story of pain and hope and grace and doubt and joy and sorrow in the ash-daubing, in holding the cup, and offering words of faith. It was hard to keep my own composure—I get emotional at baptisms :?)—then, as well as later being on the receiving end of both symbols. The practices have given new life to my faith, and I’m sure to others in our congregation.

  • Bob Ceow says:

    Amen. Thanks for this important reminder on this Ash Wednesday that we will die and that we are loved.

  • Eddie says:

    Thank you Jared!

  • Pam Adams says:

    I grew up as a Roman Catholic and received ashes for all the years I was a Catholic. I received them in the morning so wore them all day in my Catholic school and my public high school. Getting them in the morning was an excellent way to show others how you felt about our Lord God. I am glad Christian Reformed and Reformed people are practicing some of the activities I was part of as a Catholic. I left the Catholic church but not its teachings about Jesus.

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