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After a busy “hump day” at work, I hustle off to church with my family for one of the most somber days on the church calendar—Ash Wednesday. As if our never-ending Midwest winter isn’t depressing enough, the church summons us to a mid-week service to remind us of our mortality in 10 words. While I’ve come to appreciate the service and its meaning over the years, I admit there’s a tiny sense of dread that goes along with my appreciation. But that all changed with Ash Wednesday, 2021.
An Ash Wednesday Tradition
Many churches, Protestant and Catholic alike, observe Ash Wednesday. Although I didn’t grow up with the tradition, I’ve now observed this holy day for many years. Our church has its own practices associated with it.
We begin with a simple soup supper. Families, couples, and singles line up in the fellowship hall, surveying the crock-pots full of homemade deliciousness. We fill up a bowl (or two), spread butter on our dinner rolls, and grab a handful of grapes or orange slices. From our eldest members to little ones in highchairs, there’s room for everyone around the tables. We chat over dinner about work and life, and we complain about the weather. There are smiles and laughter as we join in this mid-week mini feast.
When the meal is over, we trail out through the double doors to the sanctuary. The mood changes as we enter into that space and hear the solemn notes of the organ. Having satisfied our physical needs of food and drink, we now sense a craving for spiritual nourishment. With pensive songs, prayer, Scripture, and a brief message, we receive the blessing we seek.
Finally, we walk forward for the imposition of ashes.
I find it interesting that we use the word “imposition” for this act. When something is imposed on us, it implies we are being forced into a situation we would not necessarily choose. And it’s true. On this Wednesday evening, after a light supper with friends, we’d probably all rather sit down over board games or a cup of coffee.
Instead, ashes are imposed on our foreheads. Our pastor uses her thumb to form the shape of a cross. I hear those familiar 10 words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a sobering thought. For years I’ve walked away from that service with a reminder of my sins—a black smudge on my face—and of my mortality as those words replayed in my mind. From dust to dust.
From Dust to Drive-thru
We have been honoring this tradition in the same way in my church for years. That is, until Ash Wednesday, 2021. Pandemics have a way of imposing changes we didn’t ask for or expect. Even things we thought were sacred, like Sunday worship, communion, and Ash Wednesday, take on a whole new vibe.
By that February, we had not seen our church family in person for months. In the summer and early fall, we hauled our bag chairs out to the lawn behind the building for outdoor services, with the warm sun filtering through the vast walnut tree behind the building. But during the winter, as COVID raised its ugly head yet again, we were forced to worship at home, watching church via live stream, Sunday after Sunday.
As the ground began to thaw during the bleak late winter, there were hopes for an Ash Wednesday “grab-n-go” meal complete with an outdoor service. But with a very blustery forecast, our pastor offered another alternative via an email invitation: “Please come to our Ash Wednesday Drive-Through.” A short liturgy was attached, which we were encouraged to read at home by ourselves or with our families.
Having no time to eat after work, my husband and I, along with our young adult daughter, hopped in the car and headed off to church. Although we were hungry, there was no soup supper to look forward to. No time of fellowship. No wandering into the sanctuary to the hushed notes of the organ. As my husband drove, our daughter and I lit up our phones and read aloud the liturgy we had received in the email. It began like this:
Ash Wednesday is not just a holiday. It is a wake-up call. It confronts us with our mortality and the ways we treat our lives as less than precious. To heed this call is not to despair, but to repent, to devote ourselves to the 40-day journey toward Easter, where we celebrate God’s victory over death and the promise of life.
We drove up to the canopy over the church entrance and pulled on our face masks. This was the somber part. Those ashes would impose on our lives the stark reminder of our imminent demise. We rolled down the windows, and a harsh and frigid February wind immediately sent a chill through our bones.
What followed was the most surprising gift. With ashes in hand, our pastor, our youth director, and her husband greeted us at our car windows, unexpectedly bubbling over with energy and life. We received our smudged crosses. We received the words reminding us we would someday return to dust. But on this very unusual Ash Wednesday, we received so much more.
These three church leaders—bundled up in snow pants, hats, and scarves—embodied the love of Christ toward us. From under the smudges on their own foreheads and behind their scarves and face masks, came boisterous greetings, smiles, joy, and even laughter. It was so good to reunite for a few moments with those dear ones. To connect with those we had missed.
It was a brief encounter, but like a simple soup supper, it satisfied our hunger.
We thanked them, said our farewells, and drove off, still laughing at the irony of it all. It seemed completely out of place to laugh seconds after being reminded of our deaths. To smile at the imposition of ashes. And yet it seemed so right.
Ash Wednesday is just the first step of our journey. Thanks be to God, it does not end there.
A Destination Like No Other
This year, as we celebrate Ash Wednesday, the start of our solemn journey to the cross, we will be reminded again of our humanity and all it means. That we are dust. And we’ll return to dust. As humans, we inhabit this planet earth for a fleeting moment. As sinners, we are in need of a Savior. Our journey begins with the ashes.
But this journey has a destination like no other. From out of the ashes comes hope.
God’s Word reminds us that “he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. … In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:3b-4a, 6).
Imagining our bodies returning to dust is a grim reality. But as believers in Christ, we receive the gift of hope. He has spared our souls from death. With this in mind, how can we not “be filled with inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8b)?
After Ash Wednesday, 40 days of Lent and six Sundays lie between us and Easter. During that time, we will put away our “Alleluias.” Maybe we’ll give up chocolate or meat or social media. Perhaps we’ll take on a new spiritual practice. In all these ways, Lent is an imposition on our daily routines.
A most surprising gift awaits us on Easter Sunday morning when we find the empty tomb. Through his death on the cross, Jesus has washed away that smudge on our foreheads and everything it stands for. His resurrection brings us life. His promises satisfy every craving and hunger. Through his ultimate sacrifice and triumph over death, we can rest assured of the smiles, joy, and laughter to come.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)