“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.