One of my favorite writers, Lauren Winner, says “The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is nothing if not bold.” The whole day is bold, but the ashes themselves are probably the boldest of all—a black smudge on the middle of my forehead, meant to be a sign of my mortality and penitence, and a symbol of both death and resurrection all at once. The ashes smudged in the shape of the cross (although you can’t really tell that) are an undeniable marker of my identity as a Christian. This cross isn’t like one of those necklaces that can be easily tucked under my shirt if I don’t want anyone to see it. I forget that it’s right in the middle of my forehead until I get stares from people in the library and the grocery store. Other than the people at the service with me, I didn’t see anyone else with ashes today, and I felt especially uncomfortable in the university library.
A university is a place devoted to so many kinds of truth, but sometimes it seems to me that I am the only one in my circle of friends here proclaiming this Truth. People here don’t expect someone in graduate school to be religious; I suppose they think that by now I should “know better.” Just on Monday one of my classmates, George, said in the course of class discussion, “I see religion as a way to avoid thinking”; the middle of our Literary Theory class was not an appropriate time for me to contradict him, and I was relieved when the professor quickly and graciously redirected the conversation. As I was leaving the library today, I ran into another classmate—Katie—who, meaning to be helpful, pointed out that I had something on my forehead. “Yah, um, actually… it’s supposed to be there,” I say awkwardly. She tilts her head sideways, her characteristic gesture when confused. “Today is Ash Wednesday… a Christian holiday that starts the beginning of Lent, the season before Easter.” Light dawns. “Oh!” she says. “Do you eat the Christ crouton thing?” We can talk about Jacques Derrida and deconstruction theory, but when it comes to this subject, her vocabulary is lacking. “You mean communion?” I say. “Yes, I do, but we didn’t take communion—which we also call the Eucharist—today.” This is the boldest I have been in evangelizing to my classmates.
When it comes to evangelism—another very bold thing—I’m not the handing-out-tracts kind of person; I hope people see my life and if they notice that I am sometimes joyful or hopeful they will wonder why and then I can then tell them my “secret.” But my normal “lifestyle-evangelism” gets disrupted on Ash Wednesday with this obvious mark on my forehead; I feel revealed, outed, exposed. Sometimes I daydream about maybe teaching at a Christian university (like where I graduated from) where my faith is a given, not a surprise or somehow seen as a contradiction. But for some reason, God seems to have put me here at San Jose State—and I doubt that reason is to get a fancy degree or work with some semi-important people. I think it’s much more likely that God has me here to be a little bit of salt and light. I didn’t pray with anyone today or get anyone to come to church, so maybe my Ash Wednesday evangelism wasn’t really a success. But it did do some work on me, forcing me to face my discomfort with being a Christian on a secular campus. Ash Wednesday has forced me to be bold about my faith today and has challenged me to be this bold in proclaiming the gospel all year round.
But it’s not just the ashes that are bold about this day; it’s the whole liturgy. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday has us make some seriously bold statements: we acknowledge that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but we proclaim that God has chosen us anyway. I feel terribly bold asking for God’s mercy when we pray our confession together: “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.” I’m struck with my unworthiness, but I’m reminded of a verse I memorized so long ago in Sunday school that I only know it in the King James Version: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Our prayer of confession today certainly reminds me that I am desperately in need, but still I find the courage to come boldly.
The minister moves slowly down the row of those kneeling for the imposition of ashes. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” he says to each one. The enormity of this statement starts to hit me with each repetition. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then, when it’s my turn, he smudges a cross on my forehead and says it to me this time, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And as I think about how Christ died for me—me, just a bunch of dust!—my chest hurts like it does when I step outside in the winter and try to breathe air that’s too cold.
But then we read Psalm 103:8-14 together:
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 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.” (NIV)
Lent is a time where we are more aware of the role of sin in our lives—how often we fall short of the life God has called us to live. But this awareness of sin is balanced out with an emphasis on the love and acceptance that God still has for humanity—despite the sinful condition we continually find ourselves in. The Lord remembers that we are dust and has compassion on us, mercifully forgives us, loves us, and chooses us anyway. That’s a bold thing to say.
The minister closes the service with a practice called the Passing of the Peace. He says “The Peace of Christ be with you,” and we respond, “And also with you.” Then he asks us to share that peace with each other, so we run around shaking hands with everyone, smiling and saying to each other “The peace of Christ be with you.” (We do this every week and it’s one of my favorite things about a Sunday.) Then he says, “Go in peace to love and serve God.” Go in peace. While I was reminded today that I am only a bunch of dust, I was also reminded that God remembers that I am dust and is gracious and merciful to me in spite of it. God even makes beautiful things out of dust. That might be the boldest thing of all.
Author: Alicia McClintic