“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I spoke these words to many people last night as I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with a finger dipped in ashes. This is a common practice among Western Christians marking the beginning of Lent, a forty-day season of spiritual preparation before Easter characterized by prayer, fasting, meditation on scripture, repentance, self-denial, and reconciliation. The ritual is a symbolic reminder of our mortality. All of us will die, and our only hope is the resurrection power of God. Contemplating our mortality invites us to confess our need for God and God’s gracious salvation in Christ. There is good news on Ash Wednesday, but it is mediated by the sobering prospect of our own death.
While Ash Wednesday has always been one of my favorite services since first receiving the ashes as a college student, it took on new meaning for me last night. For the first time since I was married in August 2015, my wife stood before me to receive the ashes. This caused a surge of emotion that blindsided me as many others stood in line behind her waiting to receive the sign of the cross.
“From the dust . . .” These were the only words I could say before my eyes welled up with tears. For the first time during this ritual, I was not contemplating my own mortality, but that of a person I love dearly. I could hardly bear the thought, “One day, my wife will die.” And in that very moment, my eyes were opened to a whole new way of seeing the other people coming forward to receive the ashes.
As husbands and wives came forward together, I thought, “Their spouse is going to die too.” A young mother came forward and presented her new born baby to receive the mark of the cross . . . babies die too. An older couple came forward, reminding me of all the people who had died after receiving the ashes from my finger . . . old friends won’t be around forever.
This new way of seeing the people as they presented themselves one-by-one came as a startling surprise upon contemplating my wife’s mortality. And while it might seem morbid, all of these thoughts of death led to some powerful reminders: life is short, no one is guaranteed tomorrow, and those we love are a profound gift from God to be cherished daily.
You might be thinking, “Great. I have spent the last several minutes reading a blog post that ended with, not one but three, clichés!” But these reminders come as clichés only when we forget the profound truths of which they speak. Indeed, part of our sinful condition is perpetual forgetfulness. We forget who we are and what we have. We forget what’s really important in life. But experiences like the ones evoked by a good Ash Wednesday service can provide lasting reminders that empower us to confess our need for God and more deeply love those we so often take for granted.