I stand in front of people I love, smear the burnt remains of a joyous day and tell them that they are going to die. One by one, I remind them of their own mortality. It’s a strange thing to see their reactions. Some cry. Some look solemn. Some say ‘Amen.’ Some say ‘thank you,’ which I don’t understand but I do respect. I’m constantly at the edge of tears as I perform my macabre act.
People that I work with.
Students from my youth group.
But the part that really slays me…the part where I just about walk away: putting ashes on the foreheards of my wife, my kids. I looked with fear when i saw them step into the aisle, praying they’d end up at someone else’s rail. God ordained, it seems, otherwise. I put ashes on my wife, my soulmate. My hands shook as I put ashes on my youngest daughter who so narrowly avoided death at her birth.
Today I put ashes on the forehead of my three-week old son. After several tries through the tears and emotion, I told him, ‘from dust you came and to dust you will return.’ I know what it is to have a child at a hair’s breadth from death. To tell my son…to tell myself…that this incredible gift who just entered the world will one day depart it. *That* was too much for me. A congregation member who was next in the line put a comforting hand on my arm. That may have been the one thing that allowed me to keep going in my priestly duty. And I’m glad that she did.
As much as I detest Ash Wednesday, I make sure not to miss it. I know that I need it. I need the reminder of the enemy of death. I need the reminder that it’s important to observe a holy lent because getting close to God is important NOW. We never know when this frail, beautiful life will end. I need Ash Wednesday because the more opportunities I have to face death just might help me to deal with my mortality when I face it.
Of course there is an ironic hope to what we clergy do on Ash Wednesday. In the very same moment in which I proclaim someone’s death and smear the remains of that which one was alive on their foreheads, I also make the sign of the cross–that which overcomes the power of death and the grave. Within the reminder of death we are also reminded of how we have overcome it. Thanks be to God.
May we all observe a holy lent and grow closer to our God and Redeemer.