I must admit, I feel a little funny offering a reflection on Ash Wednesday. It is such a sacred day in some denominations. But, because it has never been a part of my own church experience, I somehow feel unqualified. Oh well, as out-of-place as I may feel, this day has become important to me. May this reflection bless you, offer gratitude to those who welcomed me in their traditions, and gather us all toward the coming glory of Easter.
It was years after I became a Christian when I had my first experience with Ash Wednesday. While I was (vaguely) aware of Lent, Ash Wednesday specifics were completely unknown to me. When I showed up at the Catholic school I was serving in at the time, I found myself completely confused as to why all the kids had black smudges on their heads. Imagine my embarrassment as the “adult” in the room who definitely had to have teenagers teach me about the ashes they received.
My second experience actually took place at a non-denominational event when someone placed ashes on the foreheads of those in attendance. I remember really liking the symbolism. And, I remember feeling like I was part of an important ritual, somehow beautifully and mysteriously tying me to my own (many, many) long-passed Catholic ancestors.
The last (and ongoing) influence has been through the church my husband was raised in, a Lutheran congregation. It is there where I have learned so much about the specific days and rituals practiced by so many Christians throughout Lent (the 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays) and Eastertide (the 50 days after Easter). I have written many times about how my own Easter experience has been blessed and enhanced by their approach to days in this season such as Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
The Beauty of Ash Wednesday
Whether ashes land on our foreheads or not, the beauty of Ash Wednesday lies primarily in two things, perspective and reflection. As we near the two-year anniversary of a worldwide pandemic, and watch with tears the horrors that are taking place in Ukraine, we are uniquely positioned to be aware of our own mortality. We do not (and are not meant to) last forever. So, what does that mean for us?
A few verses often used in Ash Wednesday services:
“Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Gen. 2:7
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Gen. 3:19
“All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” Ecc. 3:20
“As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Ps. 103:13-14
As much of a downer as these verses may sound initially, there is truly such a gift to be found in the recognition of our mortality. Let’s consider just a few:
- When we reflect on how short our time really is, it focuses us. We are less likely to spend time or energy on trivial things, instead clarifying our ideals and practices to match what truly matters.
- When we get how frail our bodies are, we can stop obsessing over our appearance. Yes, take good care of your “temple” but our outward appearance was never meant to be idealized or worshiped, it was meant to be used in service to others.
- When we grasp what we came from, and what we will return to, we can let go of all that unnecessary self-importance. Yes, we are immeasurably valuable to God but we also think way too much of ourselves sometimes. Living in this paradox is our lifelong battle between humility and pride.
- In Psalm 103 above, we hear God’s love for us. In our ever present struggle to “have it all together” He says, no need, I got you. Follow Me, for I know how hard it is in that dust-bound shell of yours. It is My compassion that will get you through these years.
- Most importantly, the reflection and embracing of our mortality sets us up for a celebration of Easter like nothing else. How much more the joy of that day when we realize how the love of Jesus will be with us long after these human bodies are gone.
Well, there you go, folks. An Ash Wednesday devotional from a non-denominational gal who has come to love the symbolism of this day. Whether you attend a formal service to recognize the start of Lent or just step out your door and run your fingers through the earth, I hope your experience is a blessed one. From dust we came and to dust we will return. Pumped to see you someday on the other side in glory.