to dust you shall return
But it all begins on the first Sunday in Lent. Of course, Lent formally begins on Ash Wednesday. However, as a dispersed congregation living throughout the city of Vancouver and beyond, we find it is not possible for us to gather in the middle of the week. For years this meant that we did not mark Ash Wednesday except on the calendar. Yes, some families delighted in pancakes on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) as it is otherwise known. What once helped households to use up all the fat in the larder in preparation for the stringent fasting of Lent is now mostly an occasion for a party. In the midst of this, we wondered how we might recover the practice of beginning Lent with a ritual of the imposition of ashes.
For a few years now we have solved this problem by including the rite of the imposition of ashes within worship on the first Sunday in Lent. In alternate years we use the scripture texts set for Ash Wednesday as our texts for the day. In every year we invite all who are present - adults and children - to receive the imposition of ashes on their way past the font as they move to the table to receive the Eucharist. At the font those who wish to receive the mark of ashes stop and wait while the pastor or an elder take the ash that is mixed with oil, rubs it onto their forehead while making the sign of the cross and saying: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.
Some might find this a rather morbid, even depressing rite. Why would we invite our children to participate in such a grim practice? It seems to us that the answer is crucial in our formation as learners of Christ’s way. In an age when we are tempted to forget that we are limited, finite creatures and in a time when we can imagine that it is up to us to save ourselves it is essential that we begin our journey into the new life God intends by having our humanity imposed upon us.
That is what the ashes are meant to do. They are meant to be a reminder - like a string tied to our finger - that we are earthlings. Remember the creation of the first human, Adam. Adam is not a proper name. It is the Hebrew word for dirt: “adamah”. The first human is an earthling, made of dirt, dust, ash. That is why the word “human”is derived from the Latin word meaning dirt: “humus”. When we have the ashes imposed upon us we remember that we are not God. We are creatures. We are mortal. We are human. Each one a living miracle made out of dirt and ash.
And this is good news. It is good news because it keeps us humble (yes, humble comes from the same root word “humus”). It also teaches us that we can not help but be humiliated in our lifetimes. To be human is to be humiliated (yes, also from the word “humus”) by our finitude, our mortality and our attempts to live as if we are little gods rather than fallible humans. This is all good news because it locates us in the gospel narrative among those who Jesus comes to save, to forgive, to heal, to redeem and to raise to life. But, then, that is the drama that is to unfold as we journey to, and through, the cross. When the ashes are imposed - on a Wednesday or on a Sunday - we begin in the right place, we begin with the truth about us which opens us to the good news of the truth about the God who meets us in Jesus Christ.