One of the essential images of the Ash Wednesday commemoration is the imposition of ashes on the forehead or hands of believers. It is a tradition that goes back centuries. One that many have never experienced.
If an Ash Wednesday is not a part of your tradition of faith, I would encourage you to attend one. This is more an encouragement for my friends who are in non-liturgical churches. But even if your tradition does celebrate Ash Wednesday, visiting with believers in other traditions and experiencing how they celebrate the day may be well worth the time and effort.
But, it is a helpful question to ask: why impose ashes? Why do this at all?
The ashes represent our mortality. That we have a finite time here on this earth. And that we should not take for granted what we have.
Life is a gift. One we can never repay. Nor should we even try. The best we can do is enjoy what we have been given. In the best way, we can.
Life is not always easy or smooth. There are many who have suffered a great deal in life. And for those in circumstances like these, it can be difficult to enjoy the gift of life.
I can appreciate that. What I offer is a reminder. Not that all of life will be perfect. Without trouble or conflict. I just want to call our attention to the fact all of life is a gift. Even when it is not turning out like we wanted it to. Even when it is hard.
When we receive the ashes, we are acknowledging and accept that we are not in control of our own destiny. What does that mean? It means we feel deeply the reality we are not in control of whether or not we wake up each morning or even controlling something as mundane as our next breath.
In all of this, we are the beneficiaries of God’s grace.
We want to believe that we are the authors of our own stories. That we are not beholden to anyone or anything. But this misses an essential aspect of the human experience—that we are restrained by time and space.
Our finitude is not a curse. But it is a restriction we have to embrace.
The ashes are made by burning the dried palm branches of the previous year’s Palm Sunday Celebration. The link between Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion is significant.
We are called to remember our mortality as Jesus was called to surrender his on the cross.
Remember that you are dust, to dust you shall return. This is the central motif of Lent.
May we embrace this message with fervor. We have no reason to fear.