Ashes

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It was a muddy March, many years ago now, and my liturgically-minded husband and I attended a small country church in rural Vermont. We had only been attending for a couple of years, but we’d missed the observance of Lent that we had enjoyed at our high-liturgy Episcopal church near our former home. Hesitantly, we approached the pastor and asked if we might be able to lead an Ash Wednesday service, and do a series of Taize services during Lent. He agreed enthusiastically, though cautioned us that the church had never done anything like that before.

As the day approached we had all the preparations in place: a simple liturgy, some reflective hymns, and the all-important ashes. What I was not prepared for was the powerful act of actually marking the foreheads of my beloved church family.

“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

One by one they came and stood before me while my husband played quiet instrumental guitar music. One by one I dipped my thumb in the ashes and lifted it to waiting foreheads. I bent to mark the smooth skin of our youngest members. I looked into the eyes of the men and women I considered my spiritual brothers and sisters. But it was the stooped frame of Richard, one of the eldest members of our community, that undid me.  I will never forget the grit of the ash under my thumb as I made the cross on his papery skin.  I could barely choke out my line:

“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

In that moment we both knew the truth of the refrain, and that it would come to pass all too soon for him. It was a holy moment, in which the nearness of death was acknowledged without fear.

DSC_0247In our day-to-day lives we live so removed from death–it is almost as if we forget that we will die. Is it too difficult to live with this reality? Is that why we put it out of our minds? In the wake of my father’s death over a year ago now, I have not been fully able to settle back into the familiar forgetfulness of a death-less living. I am all too aware of life’s fragility and ultimate end. But I must say, sad as I am to be without my father, I am grateful for this new reality. Each day is an ordinary gift of grace offered to me, and the chance for me to offer grace to others.

I love this prayer from Alive Now–the invitation to “reacquaint ourselves with our smoldering, crumbling, earthbound nature.”  Today, as you mark countless foreheads with gritty ashes, may you be comforted by the reality of the boundaries of all our lives, and the holy thread of God’s presence that is woven in the space between.

God of all peoples and creatures,
you knew the chaos that swirled before Creation
and the clash of tongues in Babylon;
you raised up humanity from dust by your breath,
and by your Spirit we may still be renewed.

But on this day of dust and ashes,
let us not turn too quickly to the hope of new life.
Let us first reacquaint ourselves
with our smoldering, crumbling, earthbound nature:
our ability to burn down all we have built up;
our tendency to devastate, to ravage, to destroy
every place where God dwells,
where Christ abides and reaches out.

Let us come face to face with all we have failed to honor,
every difference we refuse to celebrate,
every fear-based judgment that drives us away from love,
every certainty that lifts us above our brother, our sister,
our neighbor, our enemy,
our very own Belovedness of God.

We confess we are no more than dust and ashes,
and we desire to turn from our destruction.

God of hope and healing, save us from ourselves;
breathe into us again and restore us as your children.
Draw order out of chaos once more:
let our tongues fall silent until guided by your Spirit;
let our steps fall in line with Christ’s journey through the wilderness;
let our hands reach out in care and re-creation
where your work is still to be done.

And in life, in death, and in life beyond death,
may we be marked and claimed by your cross-shaped love.
Amen.

Reprinted with permission from Alive Now.

–Caren Swanson

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