Two boys, one blond and one what we as kids called dirty-dishwasher brown, bounce down the three steps from the altar area, where the priest stands marking our foreheads with the ashes of dead palm branches, to their seats.
A little girl, not much older than my daughter, walks the perimeter of the sanctuary; her little legs bouncing with discovery, her smile full of life, her forehead marked with death. They seem so out-of-place, as if we are at a movie studio and they have wandered onto the wrong set.
It feels forced, this paradox of innocence and death. Morbid even. Yet, something about it rings true. Seems necessary. This reminder that “you are ash and to ash you will return.”
But Ash Wednesday reminds us not so much that we are doomed to death but that we are lost without grace. Left to ourselves we have no end other than death. This is where sin has brought us.
Ash Wednesday compels us then to something more. Something beyond this present reality. She is “an echo of the Hebrew Testament’s ancient call to sackcloth and ashes … [a] continuing cry … We don’t have enough time to waste time on nothingness. We need to repent our dillydallying on the road to God. We need to regret the time we’ve spent playing with dangerous distractions and empty diversions along the way. we need to repent of our senseless excess and our excursions into sin, our breaches of justice, our failures of honesty, our estrangement from God, our savorings of excess, our absorbing self-gratifications, one infantile addiction, one creature craving another.”
It is a reminder that “We need to get back in touch with our souls.” To the part of us that is not ash. To the part of us that knows not death.
You see Ash Wednesday is not simply a time of being “back-handed” with our mortality but a call to step forward and receive that which has come, that which is present, and that which is to come.
A crucified Christ. A risen Christ. A returning Christ.
A Kingdom begun. A Kingdom being made. A Kingdom complete.
We end Ash Wednesday as we do every Sunday service, with communion. In the midst of the despair of death, the calamity of sin, the chaos of an empire mad on destruction, we take part in a revolution. A gentle reminder of the force of God’s love; a forceful whisper of the wooing of the Spirit.
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Here it is, in the bread and the wine, the wafer and the juice. The mystery of faith.
Even now among our sackcloth and ashes, there is hope, there is joy.
There is something rising out of the ashes.
Maybe two boys bounding down the stairs and a little girl just beginning, marked with ashes, is absolutely fitting.
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.