I attended an Ash Wednesday service at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Champaign, IL. When I stepped to the front of the sanctuary to receive the ashes on my forehead, the pastor, arrayed in his clerical robe, said in a quiet voice, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” … He then paused, looked at me directly and intently and continued, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”
Then with his left hand he grabbed a small clay bowl containing ashes. He swooped his right index finger into the ashes and then made sign of the cross on my forehead, saying, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
I slowly walked back to the pew in the middle of the sanctuary where I had been sitting. As I sat there in silence, I thought of how in receiving those ashes on my forehead I thereby acknowledged my own human finiteness and mortality — my own and of those seated around me. “No matter who we think we are,” I thought, “we are at this moment being reminded that, ‘You are dust and to dust you will return.'” (Genesis 3:19)
Those thoughts did not feel morbid to me. Rather, I think they came as a way for me to limit my own grandiosity and to help me stay in touch with the real human condition we all share.
So many people, me included, live in so much denial. But today in a moment of humility and honesty, with millions of faithful around the world, I received the “imposition of ashes” as a reminder of my mortality and my own sinfulness. As writer Ruth Haley Barton says of receiving the ashes: “They are a graphic reminder of our sinfulness, an outward sign of inward repentance and mourning as we become aware of our sin.”
Today, the first day of Lent, was a day for me to invite God to search me and know me and eventually lead me into resurrection life.