I grew up in a church that didn’t use ashes at the Ash Wednesday service. Weird, huh? We had a service every year on that day, with the themes of confession, repentence and amendment. We even spoke of sackcloth and ashes. Just without the physical ashes. Oh, maybe they were up in a bowl at the front of the church. But there was no imposition of ashes, making the mark of the cross — or more often a gray smudge — on the forehead of Christians willing to make a public acknowledgement of their sin.
It was a surprise then when I became a minister at the first congregation I served: we not only did Ash Wednesday services at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. with the imposition of ashes. We actually made our own ashes during the service, burned last year’s palms right there in the sanctuary to create the ash. It was the imposition of fresh, hot ashes (and the pastor needed to be careful not to burn his fingers or his parishioners).
Do you know the smell of burning palms? It’s not unusual in the tropics where garden detritus is often burned. Whole cities can be filled with the acrid smell of burned palm fronds. In a sanctuary, it’s even more dramatic, because palms almost explode they burst into flame and burn so fast. And they send this series of mushroom clouds billowing upwards towards the ceiling.
It’s the sharp smell and that thick gray smoke headed towards heaven that forever after have been for me the signs of our sins confessed, offered up on Ash Wednesday.
That said, I’ve always been a bit self-conscious about wearing the ashes on my forehead.
Oh, I do. It wouldn’t work very well to be the clergy that’s putting the ashes on everyone else, and then explain, “Oh, no thank you, I’d prefer not.” It would sound as if I were indicating, “You all are the sinners, but I don’t need any!” So I ask someone else to make the sign of the cross in ash on my forehead. But I wear it self-consciously, nervously.
Why? Because it feels to me like the message of that ashen smudge on my forehead is a variation of the Pharisee’s “Thank God, I’m not like other men” (Luke 18:9-14). It’s a confession of limitation and failure, instead of unabashed arrogance, of course, but it always feels a bit proud advertising it so. Almost, “Thank God, I’m not like other folks who pretend they’re something they aren’t; I am wearing my confession on my forehead.”
But considering the meaning of the day, perhaps a bit of discomfort is not only to be expected, but promising.
We will have our traditional Ash Wednesday service on March 5 at 7 p.m. in the sanctuary. Please come, even if you’ve never been to one before, or aren’t sure you want to receive ashes. And feel free to invite a friend to join us.
But for the last few years, the minister who can still be shy about ashes has wanted to take the Ash Wednesday ritual out on to the city street, out into the world. Remember, our revitalization taught us that the church needs to take its offerings out to people where they live, and be ready to explain their meanings and promises to folks for whom they might not be self-evident.
“Ashes to Go” will happen at the corner of Market and 5th during the morning and evening rush hours. It will be me (and anyone else who might want to help) and a little sandwich board with some explanation like:
“Ashes to Go” for Ash Wednesday
The SIGN of the CROSS on the back of your HAND OR on your FOREHEAD.
To remind & reassure yourself:
“I’m human, imperfect, unfinished, and that’s completely ok.”
“I’ve made mistakes that I feel bad about.”
“I’m not afraid to ask for the help I need.”
“I’m asking forgiveness from God and others.”
“I’m hoping to start over and try again.”
Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. (Genesis 3:19)
By offering ashes, a prayer and an invite to Old First to anyone who wants to receive them, we’ll share God’s mercy. (If you can’t make the 7 p.m. service, swing by Market and 5th…)
Planning and praying about this has helped me imagine other ways of understanding the mark of ash that don’t feel like “praying in public”(Matthew 6:5) Maybe it will help others think too.
Or more to the point, help us all think both mercifully and hopefully about our own lives and others.
See you in church,