Today the Baptist church I serve, gathered with our sisters and brothers of Saint Peter Episcopal Church for Ash Wednesday. The beginning of the Season of Lent.
Ash Wednesday is not normally part of the Baptist tradition and it is beautiful to see distinct branches of the Christian tree come together for a common purpose. For this ‘liturgically challenged’ Baptist, my spiritual imagination has been enriched and expanded by the addition of Ash Wednesday.
In my previous setting in Oregon, we shared this ritual with a Roman Catholic congregation. For the Latino/Latina members of that congregation, it was the largest service of the year. It was beautiful to worship in Spanish and English.
Here in New England, we gather with an Episcopal Church. The crowd and diversity may not be the same, but the meaning we find in the company of one another is a constant.
For this ritual, ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross. The ashes are presented with these words, “Repent and believe in the Good News”. It is a truly intimate act to look someone in the eyes, offering ancient words of repentance, as you smudge their forehead with ashes. You can’t avert your eyes, you can’t deny your vulnerability.
In our highly individualistic culture, Ash Wednesday is profoundly counter cultural. This ritual reminds us that we come from dust and to dust we will return. The placing of the ashes on the forehead is an ‘in your face’ reminder that the illusion of our immortality, and hyper individualism, is just that, an illusion.
There is something strangely reassuring, in acknowledging one’s mortality. Rather than being a morbid ritual, Ash Wednesday is a reminder to savor the gift of life, to take care of each other. A reminder that one day, each of us returns to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.
Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.